True Crime, True Obsession

In Re-examining a Gruesome Case Via Podcast, Professors Probe the Criminal Justice System

Meghan Sacks, left, and Amy Shlosberg, hosts of the podcast ‘Direct Appeal,’ are associate professors of criminology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. (Photo: Bill Cardoni)

By Kenna Caprio

“You don’t get a perfect trial. You get a fair trial,” says Meghan Sacks, associate professor of criminology and director of the undergraduate criminology program at FDU’s Florham Campus.

Did Melanie McGuire get a fair trial? Did she murder her husband?

Sacks and colleague Amy Shlosberg, associate professor of criminology, have endeavored to find out, re-examining the 2004 murder on their podcast, “Direct Appeal.”

“We want listeners to make up their own minds about her guilt or innocence and also about the criminal justice system. Decide, if you were in this situation, or if a loved one was, is this the best we can do for justice?” says Sacks.

In 2007, McGuire was convicted of killing and dismembering her husband, Bill.

At the time, the case created a media sensation, with McGuire dubbed the “suitcase killer.” Bill’s body parts were discovered in three suitcases floating in the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia. The couple had resided in Woodbridge, N.J.

“Fairness and justice should be at the center of our system and simply are not. People need to be aware of the biases and injustices that happen on a daily basis and not take a verdict at face value,” says Shlosberg. In criminology, “we use theory to help inform policy and practice.”

Launching this podcast is the women’s way of appraising and calling out potential flaws, biases and corruption rooted in the criminal justice system.

“Someone recently asked me, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ This case and trying to figure it out. If Melanie didn’t do it, who did, and where did this happen?” — Meghan Sacks, associate professor of criminology

Sacks first heard more about the McGuire case years ago, through some of her criminology students who had interned at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Union Township, N.J. But the podcast itself took longer to germinate. McGuire’s mother and a close friend, both strong advocates for her innocence, more recently reached out to Sacks to see if she would take a meeting at the prison. Sacks agreed.

“Melanie just opened the floodgates and started talking about her case. I knew based on the first meeting that I was interested in a second one,” Sacks says of their initial conversation in a prison cafeteria two-and-a-half years ago. At first, it was just McGuire detailing the case chronologically, from her perspective and maintaining her innocence, with Sacks asking questions.

But as Sacks dug deeper, a conversation with her boyfriend led her to the podcast idea. Shlosberg, a podcast devotee, jumped on board. “I’ve always been very interested in people claiming they’re innocent, going back to my original area of research. It was a natural collaboration with us,” she says. Shlosberg’s expertise stems from her interest in social justice issues and wrongful convictions, while Sacks’ research has focused on sentencing legislation, policy and reform; plea bargaining; and bail reform.

McGuire agreed to the project and to be recorded, even knowing that Sacks and Shlosberg could potentially uncover something damning. She knew, says Sacks, if nothing else, “Direct Appeal” offered her the chance to tell her side of the story.

In an effort to avoid conflicts of interest, Sacks conducted all conversations with McGuire, since Shlosberg teaches in the prison system. Then together on the podcast, they’d listen to McGuire’s version of events and expert commentary, gathered from interviews they conducted, and then break down the evidence, claims and facts. They recorded most of the podcast at JC Studios in Jersey City, N.J., and the first episode premiered on May 6, 2019.

“You can’t just assume because someone was found guilty, that they are in fact, guilty,” says Shlosberg.

“I want my students to not always think about justice as a conviction. That’s been the predominant thought, conviction equals justice. There has to be a bigger picture,” Sacks adds. “Justice has to include the truth, or keeping innocent people free, or protecting due-process rights. It’s so much bigger than just a conviction.”

Ultimately, both Sacks and Shlosberg want their listeners and their students to use the podcast and the McGuire case as an entry point into probing the legal justice system and to considering the bigger questions and implications.

“Listeners of the podcast are potential jurors. Jurors who will have other people’s lives in their hands. The most important thing is — you have to question,” says Shlosberg.

This process has been an extraordinary learning experience and amount of work for criminologists Sacks and Shlosberg.

And yet, the two are ready to tackle their next podcast, “Women and Crime.”

With some soundproofing in place and new audio equipment purchased, Sacks and Shlosberg plan to record in a studio that they’ve set up at Sacks’ home. Each month, they’ll release two “Women and Crime” episodes, taking turns talking about lesser-known cases. “We’re going to be covering not just offenders, but also victims and women who work in the system,” says Sacks. “We’ll talk about the why, from a criminology point of view, and if we think the criminal justice system got the outcome right. It’ll be a similar format to ‘Direct Appeal,’ but we’ll be trading off.” And the podcast will be episodic, as opposed to the serialized structure of “Direct Appeal.”

Shlosberg and Sacks also intend to record follow-up episodes of “Direct Appeal,” and release them periodically as updates happen in the case.

At press time in February 2020, there were approximately 400,000 downloads of “Direct Appeal.” According to Sacks, that equates to about 20,000 individual listeners.

Listen to “Direct Appeal” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Stitcher. Individual episodes are also available to stream at directappealpodcast.com. “Women and Crime” debuted in November.

Facts & Questions

In the course of recording the podcast, FDU professors Amy Shlosberg and Meghan Sacks found they had questions — a number of questions. “Too many little things just don’t add up,” says Shlosberg.

WITNESSES

In the trial of Melanie McGuire, which aired live on “Court TV,” the prosecution called 70 witnesses to testify. The defense called only 12.

EVIDENCE

“A couple of pieces of evidence were very strong against Melanie at trial,” says Sacks. Days before her husband disappeared, McGuire purchased a .38 special Taurus revolver. And E-ZPass caught her on the road to Atlantic City, N.J., where McGuire claims Bill fled after the last time she saw him, when they allegedly had a fight. Later, she tried to have the E-ZPass charges removed.

The evidence in her favor? Prosecution theorized, but could never prove, that McGuire killed and dismembered her husband, after draining his blood, in their townhouse. Even with multiple sweeps of the property, to the point of ripping out walls and floors and drains, no forensic evidence could be found.

CRIME SCENE

“The lack of a crime scene and evidence works strongest in her favor,” says Sacks.

But “that does not mean she’s innocent,” clarifies Shlosberg. “If she did it, it didn’t happen in that townhouse. The prosecution did not get the timeline or the story 100 percent right.”

“SUITCASE TEST”

And then there’s the suitcase test that Shlosberg conducted at the gym. Weighing and measuring about the same as McGuire did at the time of the murder, Shlosberg added weights to suitcases in an attempt to recreate how much they would’ve weighed with Bill’s body inside, and to see if someone McGuire’s size could lift them.

“They claimed she lifted 80 pounds over a guardrail that was about 40 inches, and I wasn’t able to get air on 80 or even 60 pounds,” says Shlosberg. “The prosecution was never able to establish an accomplice. They claimed there was an accomplice, but they never were able to charge anyone.”

REASONABLE DOUBTS

As the women navigated the podcast, reviewing and parsing every lead and piece of evidence, they endeavored to withhold judgment until the end. And the case has some very salacious facts — for instance, McGuire, then a fertility nurse, was having an affair with her boss, a doctor in the same practice.

Without giving away their final determinations, both conclude that the standard of reasonable doubt was not met in McGuire’s case.

“The standard is meant to be so hard, because it’s meant to keep innocent people out of prison, and it doesn’t because not everyone adheres to reasonable doubt, which really terrifies me,” says Sacks.

She wonders why the defense didn’t hammer home how difficult it would’ve been for McGuire to break down the body without leaving a trace. For her part, Shlosberg questions why the defense didn’t present alternative suspects or build a competing narrative.

And neither can get over McGuire trying to have the E-ZPass charges removed.

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of FDU Magazine.

Selected features from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s biannual, signature publication.