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Hilarie Burton Morgan on Using Her Platform and ‘True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here’

Hilarie Burton Morgan returns to highlight more cases for True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here. New episodes of the series premiere on Thursdays at 10 PM ET on SundanceTV and will also be available one week early on AMC+.

Hosted by small-town native, advocate, justice seeker and actress Hilarie Burton Morgan (One Tree Hill, The Walking Dead, Friday Night in with The Morgans), new episodes of the series put a spotlight on murder cases from small towns across America. In each episode, Hilarie meets with family members and local insiders to explore each unique story and the impact and challenges of small-town justice.

I spoke with the actress about what pushed her to use her platform in such a life-changing way, her relationship with true crime, why speaking to the families is such a vital part of these stories, and more! Keep reading for our full discussion.

SundanceTV

It is such a pleasure to speak with you, especially about this series. I love it, I’m such a fan of what you’re doing.
Hilarie Burton Morgan: I honestly appreciate it so much. You know, today I was just like, “I want to talk to everyone humanly possible,” because the more people we can get to watch these cases, the more activism we can create for these families. They’re desperate for help, and we have the capacity to provide that.

You have this huge platform that you have developed throughout the years, but the fact that you are using it for something like this is so crucial and needed, and obviously not everyone does that. Can you talk to me a little bit about what pushed you to do this?
Yeah, I mean, I grew up outside of DC so all of our parents worked for the government and that’s just kind of the trajectory that everyone was supposed to follow. You would work for the Defense Department, Secret Service, or the FBI, which is what I was really attracted to. So I went to school with the intention of studying psychological forensics. I wanted to catch bad guys, I was gonna go to Fordham Law school because I was going to Fordham undergrad. We’d hang out with the dudes from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. That was the plan and then I started working, and you take advantage of the opportunities in front of you, but it doesn’t mean that you lose your interest and your compassion for those original things that you wanted to learn more about. So when I wrote my book, The Rural Diaries, as a love letter to my small town, right after it came out, there was a local case, Nikki Addimando’s case, where she had been horrifically abused by her partner and shot him, and the way that the judge and the prosecutor interacted with our local media, the things they said to her in the courtroom, I was repulsed.

Derick Xavier/Sundance TV

What was difficult is when I went and I googled these people, they were friends with people I know. I saw pictures of charity events with my buddies and that was alarming. I can see the capacity for that handcuffing someone so that they don’t speak out against that behavior. So if it was happening in my town, if it was happening to me, the chances of it happening to other people in other small towns was probably pretty good. So AMC was really wonderful, Sundance was really wonderful, they were like, “go explore, see if that is happening,” and there was just this avalanche of cases. Then after our first season started airing people just started DMing me. Two of our eight episodes this year are because of DMs that people sent, where they’re like, “Please help us. We’re getting the run-around. No one’s listening.”

I think the obsession and fascination we have with true crime, in general, is so interesting and insane in some ways, whether it’s a movie or show based on a real-life crime or even just watching the news. I’m curious, what was your relationship like with true crime before and then after this show?
I wrote a paper about this in college. Women in particular, in my opinion, are fixated on true crime because we’re planners, you know? We research recipes, we figure out the best way to do life hacks, we are always looking for information to make life make sense and in watching true crime, because women are raised to know that they’re going to be victims of something at some point, it’s almost like you’re prepping for a test, right? If you can see the warning signs, if you can see the red flags, hopefully, you can prevent that same thing from happening to you, and particularly American women are just prepared for something awful to happen.

So we watch true crime as studying, and so with this series, we’ve fantasized about small towns in our country, they’ve entered the mythology of Americana where it’s like, “oh, it’s so safe in small towns.” What we’ve discovered through working with some of our partner groups, Color Of Change being one of them, is that that’s not true. Small towns are not safe for women. Small towns are not safe for marginalized communities. It’s really easy for their misfortunes to be swept under the rug, so if we can provide a platform where we shine a light on all that and say, “no, no, no, no, no, no, we want small towns to be safe.” I love my small town so much. I want it to be the best it can possibly be, but until you address toxic stuff, it’s not going to.

I have to say the response to True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here so far has been very positive, it’s amazing. I can tell just by talking to you that you truly pour your whole heart and soul into this work. What is it like seeing that response and feedback, and realizing you’re truly making a difference?
I cried really hard when Devonia Inman was released from prison cause his mother and father are just such good people and emulate It Couldn’t Happen Here. It could not happen to those people. It should never have happened to those people, it was horrifying. I think the difference between our show and some other shows is that our crew and myself establish personal relationships with the families that we interact with. They’re not fodder for entertainment. These are now people who are part of our circle, and we continually check in on our friends from last year, our friends from this year, you know, we’ve been filming since January, and so this is a show that takes a huge emotional lift and professional lift. We’ve got some of the best documentary filmmakers in the business working on this show and I’m really lucky that I’ve gotten to learn from them. But providing the public with information that has been suppressed is– it’s an important job, but it’s also a lot of work.

SundanceTV

So if we can create a framework for our viewership to watch these episodes and say, “Oh my God, that’s what’s happening in that town. It’s the elected officials. It’s the sheriff, the prosecutor, and the judge, who are all kind of obstructing what’s real justice in this situation. How can I apply that to my own community? How can I go out and make sure that the people we’re electing are transparent, are ready to correct their own mistakes?” Somehow in this country, in the judicial system, they have vilified admitting fault and correcting your own work, when I would love it if prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs would make a point of saying, “I can always do better, let’s always double and triple check our work.” That’s what will build public confidence. If a show like ours can help make that change, awesome.

Yeah, and that change is so crucial because you are dealing with human beings and their lives, this is not something you can make a mistake with.
No, these wrongful convictions take at least 15, 20 years to overturn because you are waiting out the careers of the elected officials who put them in prison. In every case, we’ve covered that’s a wrongful conviction, that’s what it is and what’s really frustrating is that I didn’t realize how many people in positions of power were being disbarred or quietly told, “do not come back to this office.” What happens is all the cases they were involved in, even though we know they’re corrupt, they don’t reexamine those cases. If a prosecutor gets disbarred or gets in trouble, they don’t go back and look at 20 years of prosecutions and say, “hold on a second, there’s a pattern here.” Instead, everybody just kind of shakes it off and says, “moving along,” and for the person sitting in prison that knows that they’re innocent, that is torture and we’re better than that.

Lastly, meeting the family members takes it to another level. I can’t imagine that feeling for you. It breaks my heart watching it as a viewer. What is it like adding that personal touch, meeting them, and just creating a story based on their stories rather than reading facts in the newspaper or watching something on TV?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how you tell these stories and not do that. What we have learned is that what is in the newspaper is largely influenced by the sheriff’s department, by the prosecutor’s office. If that’s where you’re getting your information, you’re going to be hesitant to critique them because then you lose your resource for the story. So if you’re looking for nuance, if you’re looking for the information, the details that actually tell the story, the family has to be spoken to. I think it’s really important that they’re spoken to with compassion and as a community member.

There was some confusion about how I was gonna be listed on this show when we first started doing it, they were like, “do you want to be the host?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t want to host anything. I’m not an expert. I’m not a journalist. I don’t have a law degree. I’m just a lady from a small town that cares about my town and other towns like it, and has a lot of questions.” So it’s important to me that I speak to those family members as community members, as the kind of people I would see in the diner, at the grocery store, or at the school pickup line. So if we all as viewers can see them in that light as well, I think we can do a lot of good together.

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