What I'm Listening To: Serial

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I'm late to the bandwagon on this, but I just finished listening to Serial, and I have so many thoughts.  I'll be honest, at first I didn't want to listen to the podcast.  Given that season one investigates a murder, I was trepidacious and a little worried it would be too scary (I'm a total scaredy cat).  But so many people kept raving about it, talking about how good it was, that I felt intrigued by the show.  When my mom told me that she binge-listened to the entire season in one day, I knew that I had to check it out.  So Jordan and I downloaded three episodes and decided to give it a try on a seven-hour car ride.  Big mistake - we were hooked after just one episode!     

I don't want to give any important details away because you all should listen to Serial if you haven't already.  But since I want to talk about my opinions, there are probably going to be some spoilers.  So proceed with caution if you haven't listened to the series yet.

The basics are these: Serial investigates the 1999 murder of 18-year-old high school Hae Min Lee.  Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder.  He has been serving a life sentence for the past fifteen years, though he has maintained his innocence throughout.   

Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, who not only has a great radio voice, but is also an exhaustive and probative investigative journalist.  She explores numerous facets of the crime, going through evidence, interviews, trial records, and all available data and asking incisive questions that cut to the heart of the case.  I also thought she was great at remaining unbiased.  There are episodes where she clearly doubts Adnan's innocence, feeling overwhelmed by the evidence against him, and then there are episodes where she can't imagine that he did it, let alone was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.

Approaching Serial, I was less focused on the question of whether or not Adnan is guilty and more on the question of whether or not he got justice, particularly a fair trial.  We start at the end of the story, knowing that he is in prison for this murder, and even though the podcast uncovers a lot of information, I didn't think that we'd have a definitive answer one way or the other at the end.  With crimes like these, it's so hard to ever know what really happened, and I didn't want to set expectations that would only be disappointed.  For me, I was most interested in scrutinizing the investigation and legal proceedings, focusing how Adnan's case was handled by both the detectives and lawyers involved, and as an exploration of the American justice system, I think Serial is very engaging and successful.

To me, Serial and Adnan's case highlight various miscarriages of justice that can occur at every step of the process.  From how detectives interact with and interview witnesses, which leads they decide to follow, and what they do (or don't do) with evidence to how prosecutors decide to argue cases, which suspects to make plea deals with, and which fictions they decide to pass off as facts in court, this case is rife with bad investigative and legal work.  Adnan's defense attorney isn't without her failings either, and a quick Google search will yield a number of articles that discuss whether or not she bungled his case.  Koenig also interviews several of the jury members, and listening to them, my mouth practically fell to the floor.  They were clearly misinformed about certain critical facts of the case, and in some instances, were instructed to discount or ignore something that they later admitted to being crucial in coming to a guilty verdict.

This case feels like a prime example of the failure of the American justice system, the giant gaps in our system that allow unimaginable errors and sometimes even nefarious actions to slip through the cracks.  The United States holds itself up as a country where individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty, where the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.  Sadly, with Adnan's arrest, prosecution, and conviction, this does not seem to be the case.

As I said before, I'm not really interested in figuring out for myself whether or not he's guilty.  But in regard to whether or not he received justice, I can say confidently that I believe this is a no.  There is a mountain of reasonable doubt that should have prevented a jury from convicting him, and that is a tragedy.  He should have been afforded the presumption of innocence, and it should have been on the prosecution to present an airtight case against him that left no room for doubt.  Maybe they rushed it to trial.  Maybe they had no other leads and decided to go with the most obvious suspect.  Maybe they just needed a quick win.  But that's not worth a man's life.

At one point in the podcast, Adnan tell Koenig that he's so tired of people telling him he's a "nice guy," that they can't imagine he could have done this because he's such a "nice guy."  He says for once, he would like someone to tell him he's selfish, mean, an SOB, but that based on the facts of the case, he shouldn't have been convicted.  I don't really care about what kind of person Adnan is, whether he's a nice guy or an insufferable jerk, but the facts of the case don't point to him beyond a reasonable doubt.  And on that basis, he shouldn't have been convicted.

Have you listened to Serial?  If so, what are your thoughts?  


  1. Serial was a suprisingly addictive podcast. I got hooked pretty hard on it, and it was a difficult thing resisting setting up a room full of notes and strings tying things together like the conspiracy theorist in so many different movies. All that being said, I agree with your approach, I really think Serial is more about the journey than it is about where it ends up. Excelent podcast, and I am very excited to see what they do for season 2. I wonder if they will go with another criminal case or do something completely different.

  2. So glad you tuned in and enjoyed it. I think in my gut he's guilty but the evidence just wasn't there to convict him.


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