USF professor and grad students star in a new Hulu docuseries, 'The Lesson Is Murder'
USF criminology professor and former FBI agent Bryanna Fox speaks about why the docuseries is different than other crime shows.
A newly available Hulu docuseries called "The Lesson Is Murder" highlights the process used to create psychological profiles of killers.
The three-part series features University of South Florida associate professor of criminology and former FBI agent Bryanna Fox and her team of five graduate students as they review three closed murder cases.
The group, which includes doctoral recipient Xavier Burch and doctoral student Jacquie Burckley, researched motives and created psychological profiles to hopefully use that information to prevent crime in the future.
Each episode also features Fox interviewing the convicted murderers.
In the first installment, Fox and her team follow Will Davis, a former nurse convicted and sentenced to death for killing four patients in an East Texas hospital by injecting air into their arteries.
The second details the case of Robert Fratta, a former suburban Houston police officer convicted of hiring two hitmen to kill his wife. He maintained his innocence until his execution on Jan. 10, 2023.
In the finale — and the group's arguably most challenging case — they dissect the story of Ivié DeMolina, a former sex worker and dominatrix convicted of leading a small gang to rob and kill a number of her former clients.
Fox, Burch, and Burckley spoke with WUSF's Meghan Bowman about the series.
Fox: This series was essentially inspired by a class here at USF I taught back in 2018. It was called Forensic Psychology. The show was really inspired by something real we did here on campus, where we were applying these forensic psychology and criminology principles to a real case.
We wanted to essentially do the same thing and No. 1, help get more closure and answers for people that were impacted by these crimes. But the second was also to maybe rectify some myths about criminology and forensic psychology.
Do you think the popularity of true crime (shows and podcasts) has anything to do with making the show?
Fox: For me? It absolutely did. I am constantly asked, "Have you seen 'Mind Hunter' and 'Criminal Minds?' " And people are always asking me, "Is this what it's really like?" It's like — absolutely not. So we really wanted to make the show to more accurately document, this is the way it really is.
Have any of the findings from your classes actually made changes to these court cases that you guys dived into?
Fox: In this series, the Will Davis case is the one where there was some unanswered questions, let's say about culpability and various acts. And without having any spoilers — law enforcement has been notified, they are now investigating cases that would have never been looked into but for our work and the students in our show.
So Xavier, I know your role is "the skeptic." Can you tell me a little bit about what that process was for you?
Burch: A lot of the times when I'm presented with information, I'm automatically trying to figure out, "OK, well, why is this like this? Let's figure out why this is missing right here. Why did this happen? Why did this not happen at this time?"
So it's kind of automatically like that. I don't know why I'm wired like that, but yes.
Jacquie, for you, I know you're "the analyst." Can you tell me a little bit more about your role and your process through everything?
Burckley: I think what I brought to this team specifically was my ability to look at all of the information that we did behind the scenes with the actual data collection and put together a packet of the most important information and things we need to consider moving forward.
These three cases in the docuseries — Will Davis, Robert Fratta and Ivié DeMolina. How were you able to set that up?
All: It was a nightmare.
Fox: Literally, I think I did actually have nightmares while we were going through that process.
Because it was months, it actually could have been over a year, where I was writing, reaching out to serial killers in prisons all across the country that had cases that I was interested in and basically being pen pals with them.
I ended up in one case having daily calls with somebody who was convicted of crimes that I don't really want to get into. But I mean, they would literally give you nightmares.
And you know, he — actually on the phone with me on a recorded line — was talking about how he strangled a woman. And I was like holy cow, like, this is just, we haven't even gotten to the real interview yet. This has just been courting him to do an interview with me. Holy cow.
So that process was intense and it was nonstop for over a year.
Have you had any reactions from other inmates?
Fox: Interesting. I was just telling them I had a unique letter come to me. It was a little bit written like a 1990s kidnapping, like a ransom note. It was a potential Season 2 interview client who was interested, he wants me to psychoanalyze him and see if he has psychopathy.
It takes all types. And I think that was one other thing that we learned from the show.
"And people always demonize the families of people that commit these crimes. And she was just such a sweet, normal woman. I really enjoyed my interview with her. ... He wasn't burning animals and punching other kids when he was little — he was a relatively normal kid."Bryanna Fox, on the mother of a man sentenced to death for killing four patients in an East Texas hospital
Though, the people that we met, just the families that, the one person that always stands out, in my mind is Brenda Davis — Will Davis' mother.
And people always demonize the families of people that commit these crimes. And she was just such a sweet, normal woman. I really enjoyed my interview with her. I thought hearing her story and also hearing like, this wasn't the typical. He wasn't burning animals and punching other kids when he was little — he was a relatively normal kid.
And I think that's another key thing we want to say on the show. People think of these offenders in this way, and that's not the way it is. So trying to get people to think outside of the box that keeps coming up in these true crime series is what we're trying to convey.
I assume each case had its own set of challenges, probably different than the next, right? But which of these three featured stories was the most frustrating, or the most puzzling?
Burckley: It was Ivié or Eve DeMolina. This third one puzzled me in that I was questioning her responsibility and her level of culpability, up until the very end of filming. And even to this day, like, I think if you catch me on one day or another, I might change my mind.
Was it the same for you, Bryanna?
Fox: Absolutely. I'm glad Jackie said that, because that was the case that was most frustrating for me, and I think that more accurately portrays a lot of what we do and what we see in our field.
I've been in jails and prisons, I've been on death row outside of the show. And there have been so many times I'm like, I have to remind myself like, "Whoa." This is what this person was convicted of, because you don't get that feeling.
And outside of the crimes, you know, in their life, I'm like, "Wow, this is a normal person." But yet they did this very extreme horrible thing and I felt that way with Ivié DeMolina.
Very rarely do we see stories about the Ivié DeMolinas, although they are the vast majority of people in the prison system.
Burch: The thing I was gonna say was actually just to make sure that if you're watching this, or you're watching any true crime series, recognize that the person is a real person. Like, this isn't a joke. Let's not glorify who we're researching or studying. But make sure we understand this is a real person, we're actually trying to figure out how to stop this from happening.
"The Lesson Is Murder" is currently available to stream on Hulu.