On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared.
So begins the serial podcast – a spinoff from This American Life featuring Sarah Koenig researching, editing and performing long form journalism which she and her staff have spent a year investigating.
Adnan Syed has been serving a life sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae.
The podcast succeeds in several ways: It is the gripping product of intense investigation and reflection; It questions what it is to be accused and sentenced (without ever fully committing to whether this is sentence is correct or not); and it illustrates how the prosecution of minor offences by the police and fundamental religious values within a family can lead to unpredictable and undesirable ends.
First, the purpose of serial is to present one single story from beginning to end over the course of a full ‘season’. In doing this, much more time is spent on a single question than almost any other form of journalism. Each week focuses on a different element of the story from the history of the case, interviews with the witnesses who were called (and some not called) in the case, an exhaustive exploration of cellphone records, and even one episode devoted entirely to the inconsistencies of the case.
Second, it asks what is it to be accused and convicted of a crime that you did not commit (giving Mr. Syed the benefit of the doubt in this question)? What does it do to a life? How much or how little evidence is needed to convict? What factors (other than the facts of a case) may play into a jury’s decision?
Mr. Syed speaks about how it hurts to have lost the trust of his friends and community. He explains how he has never known independence in his life after leaving school to go directly to jail. He discusses his experience in jail – how it was or was not as he expected, what he does all day, and how he maintains relationships with those on the outside.
Thirdly, it is plain (to me) that much of the trouble that the different players of this story get into is due to their initial unwillingness to expose relatively minor illicit dealings to the police or to keep parents in the dark with respect to relationships outside of their own cultural group (Mr. Syed is of Pakistani Muslim descent and his family has prohibited him from dating girls outside of this religious community.
And, lastly, on a more personal level, this story brings memories of a case in which I sat on the jury for earlier this year. Was our judgment correct? Were we biased against the defendant? Did we have sufficient information to make the decision we made? It was painful to weigh the lack of ‘hard’ evidence against an abundance of ‘circumstantial’ evidence. Yet we were instructed by the court to consider both types of evidence as equivalent (an instruction that literally wound up settling our decision more than any other single fact).
How would I feel if I was the one on trial? Wouldn’t I be irate if I learned that I had been convicted on the basis of such a simple instruction? Is justice really blind? Was this instruction about evidence reasonable?
All during the trial, it was plain to the jury that it was the incompetence of the defendant’s lawyer that really made the case for the prosecution. Would he have been convicted if he had a better lawyer?
I’ve been mulling over all of these questions – bouncing from the case of Adnan Syed, to the one I served on. For all this, I think Serial has been incredibly successful.