In her previous career as a prosecutor, Kelly Siegler never had to tell a victim’s family that she couldn’t solve a case. Unfortunately, in her more recent role as executive producer and on-camera investigator on “Cold Justice,” where she digs into small town murder cold cases, she does not have the same luxury.
“The first time I ever sat down with a family and told them I didn’t solve a case, I was probably about 51. I was bawling; they were bawling; it was horrible. But [the other producers] said, ‘No Kelly, it’s fine, we have an ending,'” Siegler tells Variety. “It just wasn’t a happy one.”
That experience took place in the earlier seasons of “Cold Justice,” when the true crime procedural was on TNT. The Turner cabler cancelled the show after two years in the fall of 2015, blindsiding Siegler, who had helped bring 30 arrests and 16 convictions in that time.
“When we didn’t get picked up by TNT, we didn’t know that was coming, so when we went on break, there were victims’ emails in my inbox and files I was waiting to read and people expecting us to come work on their cases,” says Siegler. “A lot of hopes were up that we were going to be able to do something to help their local law enforcement move forward, but then it went away. We were surprised and disappointed.”
But then she got good news: Oxygen Media decided to pick up “Cold Justice” for a new season to help them launch their re-branding as a 24-hour crime channel. “It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to call [those victims’ families] back now and say ‘Can we still come?’ and move forward to try to solve some more cases,” Siegler says.
Siegler, who prior to the original launch of “Cold Justice” didn’t have any experience in the TV world, admits she didn’t have many expectations for the series originally. The same cannot be said for the audience, though — many of whom had been trained by scripted crime dramas to expect neat resolutions at the end of every episode. “When we first started this, somebody asked me if we’d be able to see the trial at the end, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?'” Siegler laughs. “It’s been a learning process on my end and their end.”
Oxygen’s version of “Cold Justice” has been tweaked a bit since its time on TNT. Siegler’s former on-camera partner, Yolanda McClary, is no longer on the show, with a team of investigators taking her place. But the overall format and process of selecting cases remains intact.
“Before we ever work on a case, the local law enforcement agency has to invite us or want us. Otherwise you don’t have access to all of the evidence,” says Siegler. “So [they] invite us; the victim’s family has to want us; and the DA also has to approve us — all before we can ever go somewhere and start working on the case. Those are three pretty significant hurdles we have to jump before we can even start reading the cases. Then I read the cases with a partner who is a former cold case/homicide guy from HPD who I’ve known forever. We read and summarize them and then present them to [producers] Dick Wolf and Magical Elves to see what they think. If everybody agrees, we go work on the case.”
Also intact from previous seasons is the pressure Siegler feels to give the grieving families justice. She notes that if she reads the case and advocates for it to be on the show, she’s essentially the one who “picked” it and therefore it’s her fault if the team doesn’t solve it. “As many times as we tell the victims’ family — and it never makes the show, but I tell them every time to please try not to worry [or] get your hopes up, that ‘we’re going to do everything we can, but I can’t promise you anything’ — I know they still have their hopes up,” Siegler says.
The cases Siegler feels the most proud of are therefore of course the ones that end her time in their town with a DA saying he or she will take the charges and allow local police to make an arrest. But Siegler knows the reality is that most times it takes a lot longer to move the wheels of justice. And above giving the audience a satisfying ending every time, she is more concerned about authenticity. “I want to solve 10 out of 10, but I tell myself, ‘Maybe we won’t solve two or three,’ and I can live with that because in the real world of solving cold cases, the clearance rate is something like 18%. So if I give myself 70%, that’s way higher than normal — though still too low for me,” Siegler explains.
“There are just things we can’t control, and we can’t control telling a prosecutor in a county in another state that he better make up his mind before your show airs. It’s not going to happen. So we have to deal with that reality, and we do, and the show does.”
“Cold Justice” premieres on Oxygen Saturday, July 22 at 8pm.