Journalists write book on people who are murder trial hobbyists

Mike Petchenik and Neil Gordon appeared recently on Atlanta & Company” on WXIA-TV to discuss their new book "Trial Watchers." Courtesy Neil Gordon

Credit: Courtesy Neil Gordon

Credit: Courtesy Neil Gordon

Mike Petchenik and Neil Gordon appeared recently on Atlanta & Company” on WXIA-TV to discuss their new book "Trial Watchers." Courtesy Neil Gordon

Two veteran journalists capture the allure of true crime in a new book about people who follow murder trials as a hobby, traveling to courtrooms around the country to watch some of the most heinous and mysterious cases unfold in real time.

“Trial Watchers” by Neil Gordon and Mike Petchenik is an anthology of short stories that delve into the public obsession with real crime drama, taken to another level. The co-authors plan to launch an accompanying podcast on Aug. 1.

“We quickly realized it was more than just a hobby,” Petchenik said of people who frequently attend courtroom trials. “It wasn’t just an itch they wanted to scratch. A lot of them had real life trauma in their background that sort of informed their decision.”

Some trial watchers have family members who were violent criminals, others had a relative who had been missing for decades, Gordon said. For the people who become fans of trial watching, the crime that affected them in their personal life created empathy, he added.

Gordon is publisher and editor of the publication Augusta Business Daily. Petchenik is a media consultant in crisis communications and a former longtime reporter for Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action News. The two met nearly 25 years ago when Gordon, a news director for an NBC News affiliate in Augusta at the time, hired Petchenik.

For their book, Gordon and Petchenik interviewed about 50 people including trial watchers, former jurors, reporters, a media psychologist and more.

“(We learned from the psychologist that) women are disproportionately true crime fans and the fans who are traveling to these cases,” Petchenik said. “Women are very principled. They believe in right and wrong. They want to see the good guys prevail, the bad guys go to prison.

“There’s also this road map to try to avoid becoming a victim of a crime. If you think about it, you’re watching some of these cases and you see some of the evidence laid out and think the victim did that … I’m not going to do that so that maybe I can avoid becoming a victim of a crime”

Trial Watchers” begins with Gordon addressing his side of controversies over his first book “Behind the Doors of Justice,” on the Alex Murdaugh murder trial and a chapter in which co-author Becky Hill has admitted to plagiarizing the work of a BBC reporter.

“She admitted this to me, to the national press in a news release, and on the witness stand during an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 29, 2024, in Columbia, South Carolina,” he writes in the preface of “Trial Watchers.”

Before that came to light, Hill was county clerk of court in South Carolina for the Murdaugh trial who was under scrutiny by media for possible jury tampering in hope that a guilty verdict would favor the book being written by her and Gordon.

Murdaugh was convicted in March 2023 of killing his wife and son. News articles by The Associated Press state that Murdaugh’s attorneys are appealing the conviction and accusing Hill of trying to influence the jury.

Gordon and Hill’s book is no longer for sale, Gordon said.

“I thought the preface (of Trial Watchers) was the right place to deal with (what happened) and take some degree of responsibility,” he said. “I consider myself a trusting person. Some people might call me a little gullible.”

On the possibility his first book with Hill being the impetus for a new Murdaugh murder trial, Gordon said: “I want truth to prevail whatever it is. The first book has already created a firestorm but I wouldn’t want to be cause for the potential of a guilty person to go free.”