At the beginning of each episode of TNT’s new reality series Cold Justice, former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler and former Las Vegas CSI — a real one — Yolanda McClary arrive in a small town ready to help the police or sheriff’s department solve one cold murder case.
During a long tenure in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Siegler became known for bringing drama to the courtroom, and there have already been a few earlier attempts to bring that Siegler drama to television. There was once talk of a scripted television series based on her life, and after her most famous case, the Susan Wright murder trial, Siegler had the “painful” experience of watching actress Lisa Edelstein portray her in a Lifetime movie.
Siegler believes with a new set of eyes and outside support, “they can have some luck with these cases.”
Yet for all this celebrity and her years in Houston, Siegler is a small town Texas woman at heart who still knows the people of her hometown of Blessing by name and calls the town barber, her father, “Daddy.”
In the third episode, Siegler goes back to Blessing with McClary to solve a 33-year-old murder. The day after her homecoming aired I spoke with Siegler by phone about her new life solving real murders under the camera’s gaze.
Cold Justice comes from Law and Order creator Dick Wolf’s production company, but the original idea is Siegler’s and the small town setting was a integral part of that idea.
“When you grow up in a little town, you see how small towns get overlooked and sometimes people think that we’re slow and we don’t know how to do things,”Siegler explained to me.
While large cities like Houston have cold case squads, many rural counties “barely have enough manpower to keep their heads above water.” Siegler believes with a new set of eyes and outside support, “they can have some luck with these cases.”
A New Reality
Cold Justice mixes several television genres to create a new type of series, but the frame is that well-worn reality formula, the expert who comes to help the hapless save their failing business, restaurant, house, etc. The big difference between those shows and Cold Justice is the real-life drama arises from the cold cases, not from the experts and locals butting heads. When I mentioned this observation to Siegler, she agreed.
“I watch that show where that guy goes in and fixes a restaurant. That’s one of my favorite shows. I get the conflict where he screams at them. . .and then makes them cry,” she said laughing, but then continued: “That’s the last thing we want to do. We want our local cops to be excited when we get to town.”
“We both grew up in a man’s world and the focus is to get the job done and solve the cases."
Siegler and McClary, along with their team of investigators, retired Houston homicide detectives Johnny Bonds and Alan Brown and former Dallas detective Armando Perez, appear to always hold great respect for the local law enforcement officers, drawing on their knowledge and expertise throughout the process.
This shared attitude might lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Siegler and McClary have been working together for years, when in actuality they first met while pitching the show to networks.
“The main thing I would have been worried about is that we always have to people on the team who aren’t big city know-it-alls. They’ll go into little towns and get along with everybody and not act like they’re the only ones who know how to do anything. She’s great about that,” Siegler said of McClary, but she also thinks their rapport comes from sharing similar experiences as women.
“We both grew up in a man’s world and the focus is to get the job done and solve the cases. We understand that what we do is important. . .We’re both very blunt and direct. The main thing is she doesn’t have any kind of ego. She just gets the job done.”
It looks like the sho, too, is getting the job done. The ratings continue to rise, and that first episode also brought them a pretty spectacular real-world win. But these successes have also brought challenges.
The pilot episode filmed a year ago in Cuero, Texas, focused on the death of Pamela Curlee Shelly, which was originally deemed a suicide. Over a decade later, Shelly’s family and one local investigator still disagreed with that finding. Suspicion fell on her boyfriend, Ronnie Hendrick, and his family’s ever-changing, and at times ludicrous stories, only made the Cold Justice team more certain he had killed Shelly.
The episode ended with the Dewitt County DA deciding to indict Hendrick, but because this was the pilot, it did not air until six days before the trial was scheduled to begin. The court was unable to seat a jury since so many people in the county had watched the show. Hendrick later confessed to the murder and was sentenced to 22 years.
Since Cold Justice can only investigate at the invitation of local law enforcement, Siegler finds herself having to give comfort while saying no.
Siegler blames timing on the initial mistrial and thinks the situation is unlikely to happen again. “I don’t think that will be a problem anymore because by the time these cases go to trial in these small counties our show would have long since aired,” she explained.
But when I asked if these situations sometimes arise even without a television show getting involved because the community is small, she admitted it can be a problem.
“In most of these little towns, everybody already knows about the murder and everybody is living there with the murderer a lot of times. . .That level of knowledge is pretty comparable to if the show comes out and if people bother to watch. It’s going to be the same people who knew about the murder and had their opinions formed anyway.”
The second problem success has delivered is the many families of murder victims who have begun to contact Siegler directly. Since Cold Justice can only investigate at the invitation of local law enforcement, Siegler finds herself having to give comfort while saying no.
Listening to her, it became obvious the subject is difficult for her.
“They hear about this show and hear that we’ve had some success, and probably get their hopes all up. They contact us, and then we have to tell them ‘You have to talk to your cop.’ The local cops have to feel a need for us before we can do anything. I don’t know. There’s nothing else I could do to help them.”
Though no decision has been announced about a second season, the Cold Justice team is seeking new, old cases from around the country. Perhaps for some victims’ families help might be on the way.
Cold Justice airs on TNT Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Or you can watch it online.