In 2010, journalist Ethan Brown was working for a law firm as an investigator on a capital case. It was a job that had him regularly driving back and forth along Interstate 10 from his home in New Orleans to southwestern Louisiana, and it was on these drives that he first saw the billboards featuring the faces of the eight murdered women.
Known as the Jeff Davis 8, the women had all lived in or near Jennings, Louisiana, the seat of Jefferson Davis Parish. From 2005 to 2009 their bodies were discovered in canals and off back roads. They ranged in age from 17 to 30, were Black and white, and were connected by a thriving crack trade set amid the quiet rice and crawfish farms.
Sheriff Richard Edwards set the tone for the investigation early on, referencing the victims’ involvement in drugs and sex work as a “high-risk” lifestyle and positing that the murders were the work of a serial killer. Brown, along with many of the victims’ family members and friends, weren’t so sure, particularly given the culture of entrenched corruption among local law enforcement and the institutional injustice that defined daily life in Jenning and towns like it across the country.
In his 2016 book, Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8, Brown explored the case and the mistake-riddled investigation. He also gave voice to the victims, exploring their lives and circumstances. Murder in the Bayou is now a five-part docuseries on Showtime from director Matthew Galkin and producer Joshua Levine. The series is a riveting and devastating exploration into the crimes, which remain unsolved, and the people affected by them.
Refinery29 spoke with Brown about the series, the ways in which the case has evolved since he first became aware of it, and the potential that true crime entertainment has to be a changemaker in social and criminal justice.
What was it like to film the people involved in this case after so many years of knowing them?
Ethan Brown: "We wanted to center the families in this story, which is a really complex story about the investigation of eight homicides. I was concerned that it might be tough getting people to go on camera for so many reasons – fear, shame, passage of time. But the process of filming the families just had this almost magical quality to it. You know, we were sitting there filming in, like, 115-degree heat in these very tight spaces and the result is so remarkable and intimate. The interviews are so emotional. These folks have been marginalized so profoundly.
"It feels to me like you could read my book and doubt certain things I wrote or doubt what people are saying, but I feel like it would be very hard to come away from this film, seeing these people speak, without believing them. Early on, when we still had a few interviews, I just had the sense that 'Wow, this is stunning.'"
How do you think the perception of this case has changed since 2010?
"I think a lot of things have changed since then. The first one might be obvious, which is that in the fall of 2017, Harvey Weinstein and a number of other men went down in flames. And now obviously Jeffrey Epstein is something that we're grappling with. I think that has enormous relevance to the case and the docuseries because of the abuse that these women, many of them suffered while in the custody of law enforcement.
"We are talking a lot more now about incarcerated women and marginalized populations and the abuse and victimization that they suffer. So I think that's an enormous shift that happened well after the book came out which was only three years ago.
"The second thing is the incredible decriminalization movement happening around sex work. A lot of that is happening right in Louisiana. In the first half of 2018 there was the stripper strike, with advocacy groups organizing for dancers in New Orleans. I just find this so powerful and relevant. The messaging we hear a lot is that sex work is work and that’s so relevant to a story like this and the notion that criminilization is not helping anybody. In fact, it's harming people. And in this story you see women who were victims of that criminalization structure. The police were having sex with some of these women in the parish jail which is just a nonconsensual environment by definition.
"I also think it’s important that you see the families of the women speak very candidly about their struggles with addiction and how, while it doesn’t define them, it’s certainly a part of them. We all struggle with something. The film feels to me a little bit different than the book in that people seem to be sort of receptive to wanting to hear this story in a just and fair way."
Do you see the boom in true crime entertainment as responsible for that change in any way?
"I don't actually like most true crime things that I see, but I can think of some exceptions, like The Keepers. I thought that was really devastating and just exactly what I want to see. I loved that it’s centered around these women, trying to solve this case in a very human and normal way. And then it takes you through the most insane institutional corruption at the Baltimore Police Department and the Catholic Church. That’s the kind of true crime, or whatever we're gonna call it, that really meets the moment, so to speak.
When Making A Murderer came out, as somebody who worked in indigent defense, I thought the Brendan Dassey stuff was just incredible. Like, in terms of something anywhere in written form or documentary form that just was so devastating about right to counsel issues, I can’t think of anything else. So that had pieces that were really important.
I loved S-Town I thought that was brilliant and one of the best pieces of reporting on the south that I've heard.
But other things, certain podcasts and things, I really dislike them. I don’t want to sound like a scold but there’s a weird inappropriateness to a lot of the stuff that’s out there. It’s not serious enough for the subject, it’s just all this crazy misogynist talk about dead women."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.