C.S.I. fans, if you’ve ever wondered if Catherine Willows was based on an actual person, you’re about to get your answer. In TNT’s latest true-crime outing, Cold Justice, Dick Wolf, executive producer of the Law & Order franchise, takes on some of America’s 200,000-plus real-life cold cases, spotlighting former Las Vegas crime scene investigator Yolanda McClary — on whom Willows was based — and former Houston prosecutor Kelly Siegler (68 wins, 0 losses) as they team up to tackle small-town murder cases that were previously thought unsolvable.
With a team of two homicide detectives plus local authorities backing them up, the pair of crack crime-busters has just nine days to crack the cases — with cameras rolling. “We’ve been working for the government since we were babies, making no money, working on murder cases and working with cops our whole lives — so we know that world, we know the criminal justice system, we know all of that,” says Siegler, surveying the action at TNT’s recent 25th anniversary celebration. “We just don’t know all of this!”
Cold Justice’s producers allow Siegler and McClary to pick the cases they’ll work on, which the pair says is based on whether or not they think they can do the victims and their families justice in such a small window of time.
“There are some offense reports that you read and you know right away — they’re never going to solve this case,” Siegler explains. “And there are some that we read and we think, ‘OK, we could solve this case if we were in our old jobs, but it would take years.’ We have to find the cases that we can solve in nine working days.”
Asked if they’ve taken on a case and then discovered that it was more challenging that it appeared to be at the outset, the pair chuckle and exchange knowing grimaces.
“Most of the cases, we start them and we’re into day two and we look at each other …,” Siegler begins.
“…and we’re depressed,” laughs McClary. “We’re like, ‘Oh this is awful! My stomach hurts!’ On day two, every case looks bad!’”
“We had one case where everyone we talked to had new information and we were walking around smiling and going, ‘This is awesome! They should all be like this!’ Siegler says. “We had ONE case like that. One.”
“They all start off as a nightmare, but they all turn out pretty well,” McClary says.
A typical episode begins by introducing viewers to the case, the victim and his or her family, and the town in which the crime occurred. Then it’s really show time for McClary, Siegler and their team.
“We go to the crime scene early on and Yolanda does her thing,” Siegler explains. “Then we start talking to witnesses and we try for physical evidence results, and then we have a powwow. We say, ‘OK this is what we’ve learned this whole week — where do we think we are?’ Us, the two homicide detectives that are on our team and the local guys, we have to all have be in agreement about what happens now.”
“It’s actually a week’s worth of work that we put into one single case,” adds McClary. “We rip it apart and try to rebuild it to see where it will go.”
“But we’re also saying all the time, this is real — this is not TV,” adds Siegler. “We want to show people the real, nitty-gritty world of how you solve an old murder case. And we’re doing it!”
Siegler says it’s a little bittersweet turning the case over to another attorney for prosecution, but she and McClary still take great satisfaction in the work they do.
“Our goal is always that we have enough of a beautiful case that the DA will say, ‘I’ll take charges, or I’ll take it to the grand jury,’” she says. “That’s our goal.”
“We literally hand them, if we can, a case not on a silver, but a gold platter,” McClary adds.
And while the women are excited to show audiences the real workings of their professions, they’re not about to let TV cameras get in the way of getting the job done.
“We’re just so into what we’re doing that we forget they’re there,” McClary says. “My job is not to worry about them. My job is to worry about this case.”
Cold Justice airs Tuesday nights at 10/9CT on TNT.