Did a husband murder his wife or is he in prison for a crime he did not commit?

Podcast review: Bone Valley has it all - a cold case, a man in prison who says he is innocent, a renegade prosecutor, a confessed murderer

True crime is the lifeblood of the podcast industry: favourite murders (see hit pod My Favorite Murder’s millions of monthly listeners) make for favourable ratings, and many a podcaster has jumped on the post-Serial bandwagon with varying degrees of intelligence and integrity.

But even if you’re not a devotee of true crime, you should listen to Bone Valley. It’s not just that the elements here add up to something extraordinary: A cold case, a man in prison who says he is innocent, a Pulitzer-winning writer and a dogged researcher, a renegade prosecutor, a confessed murderer. It’s also a deeply compassionate telling of a complex story, grounded in persistent and principled journalism.

Yes, there’s a crime here – many crimes, in fact – but the focus for writer Gilbert King and his co-host Kelsey Decker, is on what’s true.

In 1989, Leo Schofield was convicted of killing his wife Michelle, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was 22 years old. He’s been in prison ever since, despite the fact that someone else has repeatedly, credibly confessed to the same murder.

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Bone Valley sets out to understand how, despite the lack of physical evidence to connect him to his wife’s murder, Leo Schofield went to jail for more than three decades and is still behind bars to this day. King and Decker talk to everyone they can: from Schofield’s former bandmates to Michelle’s best friend, to her younger brother, to a local beat reporter from the time of Michelle’s death, to the county sheriff. And they hand the mic to Schofield, interviewing him at the Hardee Correctional Institute in Florida several times over their years-long investigation.

“Hey listen, this is the story,” he tells them as he protests his innocence over and over. “It is what it is. You believe it or don’t believe it. It’s up to you.”

Taking full advantage of the format, King and Decker weave in recordings of phone calls, audio from trials, and a particularly painful trip to the evidence room where Michelle’s torn clothes and the photographs of her mutilated body reduce Decker to tears. And then there are painstaking reconstructions of the various legal proceedings that Schofield has lived through: his first trial with a negligent defence attorney hired on the advice of a cellmate known as Squeegee, an evidentiary hearing where he comes face-to-face with Jeremy Scott, the man whose fingerprints were found in Michelle’s car, and a parole board hearing with a swaggering prosecutor.

Bone Valley leads listeners through detailed layers of an investigation spanning years but remains a deeply humane piece of work

They also paint a clear and compassionate portrait of Scott, and after long waits and commendable persistence, they speak to him directly. All of this against a backdrop of sticky heat and swampy water and sheriffs who wear tie-pins of little electric chairs.

Bone Valley leads listeners through detailed layers of an investigation spanning years but remains a deeply humane piece of work, finding space for Schofield, for Scott, and importantly for Michelle.

If you get this far and there’s a cynic in you wondering why King allows so much praise to be heaped upon him by his subject in the final episode, it’s worth considering that the writer is skilfully underscoring the truth about this podcast, not for his own benefit but for that of Leo Schofield: Bone Valley really is Schofield’s last hope. Last autumn, Adnan Syed, the subject of 2014 blockbuster podcast Serial, was released from prison. Can Schofield hope for the same? As a petition circulates asking for his case to be reviewed, that may depend on what Bone Valley’s listeners think. You believe it or don’t believe it. It’s up to you.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and journalist