Introducing the Serial podcast—an audio series that shines a light on the real world of crime, police investigations, and criminal prosecutions.
Crime stories as portrayed in fiction, TV and film—with their oversimplified plot lines and too-easy endings—have clearly influenced public perceptions of criminal justice. But in the real world, crime and justice are a jumble of complexities and unknowns, and there are rarely any easy answers.
At last, a popular crime story has injected some truth into true crime tales. Last autumn’s 12-episode podcast, Serial, was an immediate pop culture phenomenon. Serial detailed producer and narrator Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore, Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee. Koenig seeks to find the truth by diving into the murder, Baltimore Police’s original investigation, and the arrest, trial, and eventual conviction of Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, of first-degree murder.
In the real world, crime and justice are a jumble of complexities and unknowns, and there are rarely any easy answers.
Koenig was driven to launch Serial after being contacted by Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and the sister of Syed’s best friend, and asked to look into the case. Koenig had previously written about the 2001 disbarment of Syed’s trial lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez.
In contacting Koenig, Chaudry hoped to build support for Syed. But with Koenig’s attention came a flood of public interest in Lee’s murder and Syed’s conviction. Chaudry knew the effect that national press coverage can have on cases, and she used that knowledge like a media- savvy marketer.
It was masterful and more successful than she could have imagined. The podcast set download records and kept listeners hooked and waiting for each week’s episode until its much-discussed season-one finale.
This podcast was groundbreaking, not only because of its popularity and the awareness it brought to Syed’s case, but also in its portrayal of a criminal investigation. Serial differs from the most popular examples of crime entertainment, such as NCIS, CSI and Law and Order, because of its far more realistic look at how the criminal justice system actually works.
I discussed an overall view of Serial’s significance in an article for All Things Crime, but now would like to get into the specifics of the different areas of criminology and investigation that Serial addressed.
The Murder of Hae Min Lee and the Arrest and Trials of Adnan Syed
There’s no better way to understand the multilayered complexities of the case than to simply listen to the podcast. But to quickly recap, here are the basics of the case: what happened on Jan. 13, 1999, and the events following.
Hae Min Lee, a student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland, left school around 2:25 PM on Jan. 13, 1999. She was supposed to pick her cousin up from school, then meet her boyfriend at the mall. Lee never showed up to either of these places and was reported missing by her family.
Police called Adnan Syed, a fellow student and Lee’s ex-boyfriend, at 6:24 PM asking if he knew anything about Lee’s whereabouts. A body was found in a city park on Feb. 9, 1999 and was identified as Lee’s two days later.
Syed was arrested at 6:00 AM on Feb. 28, 1999 and charged with the first-degree murder of Lee. Syed was convicted on Feb. 25, 2000, following a six-week second trial after his first trial ended in a mistrial. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Syed is currently serving the term in Maryland’s North Branch Correctional Institution.
The most substantial impact that crime entertainment has had on the public perception of criminology has been in the realm of physical evidence. CSI has so altered people’s beliefs about what’s possible in forensic science, that investigators, forensic experts and lawyers have adjusted their tactics to account for “The CSI Effect”—a widespread overestimation of the importance and efficacy of forensic evidence in criminal cases.
These shows live within a false reality of abundant physical evidence, and immediate and infallible processing and analysis of it. In her investigation, Koenig demonstrates many of these inaccurate views and is routinely surprised by the lack of physical evidence in the case. Despite Koenig’s career in journalism, she carried some of the most common misconceptions about physical evidence into her investigation.
Hearing Koenig work through the lack of physical evidence in the case highlights the reality that even if there is forensic evidence in a case, it does not magically solve the crime, and sometimes can bring up further questions.
Testimonies and Timelines
The case against Adnan Syed was almost entirely reliant upon testimony, and in the podcast it is the most heavily analyzed aspect of the original criminal investigation. The state’s argument hinged largely upon the testimony of a man named Jay Wilds, who claimed that Syed had come to him for help after killing Lee.
Wilds’ testimony and how it was handled in the original court case, then looked into by Serial, show key differences in the world of popular crime fiction and the reality of real-world investigations.
There were two aspects of Wilds’ testimony that were key for investigators and prosecutors to use in building their case: First, his claim that Syed had come to him for help in disposing of Lee’s body; second his timeline for what happened on Jan. 13, 1999.
Unlike on the screen, the “whole truth,” too often, never comes to light in actual courtrooms.
Wilds’ version of the events on that day changed in both subtle and drastic ways each time he was interviewed by police, but both major aspects of his testimony did change. According to analysis by Susan Simpson, an associate with the Volkov Law Group, Wilds was inconsistent in 24 distinct aspects of his testimony against Syed in four pretrial statements to police, while only being consistent about five details.
Within the world of entertainment and crime fiction, this would not only be enough for Syed to be magically cleared of suspicion, but would most likely turn the suspicion onto Wilds. However, crime fiction often glosses over many of the complexities that police and prosecution are faced with in real-world investigations and trials. Unlike on the screen, the “whole truth,” too often, never comes to light in actual courtrooms.
To investigate Wilds’ timeline, Koenig and her staff also show an aspect of investigation that is rarely shown in entertainment—the endless hours of painstaking research, the dead-ends and interviews that turn up nothing, and the knowledge that some questions will never be answered satisfactorily.
Crime television doesn’t deal in the unanswered questions. Its purpose is to present a clean and tight story arc—from the commission of a crime to a court’s decision in under an hour…which doesn’t leave much time to get into the intricacies of plea bargains or confidential informant arrangements.
Law and Order has long used current, real world crime cases as the inspiration for its episodes—which requires quick-turn production of episodes, in order to strike while the buzz is fresh. The downside is that frequently, many details of the case are not yet public knowledge, and thus, can’t be written into the episodes.
Serial has announced production of a second season with a new story (though the story hasn’t been chosen yet). One of the most captivating aspects of the podcast is that, unlike the fictional world of TV, the story behind Serial has continued after the final episode aired.
Public interest in the developments of Syed’s case shows Serial’s impact outside of the entertainment value of listening to the podcast. By capturing Koenig’s interest in the case, Chaudry managed to transform a small effort of family and friends into a larger movement. Serial did the vital work of giving the effort a brand and turned it into something more powerful than typical crime entertainment.
Serial certainly won’t unseat CSI and Law and Order in pop culture, nor can it dispel all the misconceptions these shows have created with regard to criminology and investigation. However, by injecting a level of truth into crime entertainment, it offers a new perspective in a genre that desperately needs one. And it shows how entertainment can work in large, culturally vital ways. Whether further examples of crime entertainment follow suit or not, Serial’s success is a promising development.
On Feb. 6, 2015, almost immediately after this article was submitted, Adnan Syed was granted an appeal by The Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Syed’s argument for an appeal is based on an assertion that his trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez was ineffective. The main point of this argument is that Gutierrez never spoke to Asia McClain, a former classmate of Syed’s, who said she saw Syed at the library during the window of time that Maryland prosecutors claimed Syed murdered Hae Min Lee.
McClain became more aware of Syed’s case after Sarah Koenig reached out to her during her Serial investigation. Beyond McClain’s testimony, Serial could potentially bring forward other new evidence. As The Washington Post states, “New evidence in the case could be brought to the surface, thanks in part to the popularity of the radio show.”
The intersection of entertainment and life found in Serial only grows, and I know that I will be continuing to wait for updates with rapt attention. Syed’s appeal will be heard by a panel of judges in June, and in the meantime, a separate panel of judges is considering whether Syed’s lawyers will be able to admit new evidence, specifically McClain’s testimony, with his appeal.
About the author:
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners.
You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyMEvans