A wildly popular true-crime podcast seems poised to change the course of justice for one man, and maybe, to shift perceptions about justice for us all.
In late 2014, the Serial podcast spurred a seismic shift in the landscape of true-crime narrative and its place in popular culture. It was a source of in-depth investigative truth-seeking as entertainment, and achieved unprecedented popularity.
What attracted so many fans to Serial were the baffling details of the 1999 murder case of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore, Maryland high-school senior, and the eventual conviction of Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
Serial host Sarah Koenig had no idea that a series about a cold-case reinvestigation would grab the kind of national attention it did, as she told NPR’s Fresh Air. She had even less of an inkling that her story might alter the course of justice. “I’m not here to exonerate Adnan,” said Koenig. “I’m here to report this story.”
But her reporting has led to unexpected results: Adnan Syed has recently been granted a new trial, rekindling interest in the podcast, and reflecting a sea change in the ways that media like Serial and Making a Murderer are shining a light on criminal justice and criminal investigations.
New Eyes on the Case, Bringing New Facts to Light
Koenig may not have set out to exonerate Adnan Syed, but it’s difficult to argue that he might never have been granted a new trial without Serial’s giant spotlight. In 2010, Syed had petitioned Judge Welch for a new trial; the judge denied his request in 2013.
This time, however, the same judge granted the request.
What changed between then and now? New evidence, uncovered by attorney Susan Simpson in conjunction with the Undisclosed podcast, changed Judge Welch’s opinion, and convinced him to vacate Syed’s conviction.
Koenig may claim that her reporting didn’t directly turn up the new evidence that changed Judge Welch’s mind. But Serial and its millions of followers did prompt an army of legal scholars, reporters, and sleuths to put many more sets of eyes on the minutiae of a very complicated investigation, one that had long gone cold.
Generally speaking, finding a single piece of evidence that changes the outcome for a defendant is like fishing with a bow and arrow—investigators must aim in very specific directions and take their shot, hopeful that it will bring something of use. You can ask any post-conviction investigator or attorney how often that kind of hunting leads to success.
But with the power of Serial and its massive audience, the bow has been traded for a wide and expanding net, which can pull in answers and ideas from an area wider than ever before imaginable.
Adnan Syed certainly wasn’t the first defendant to benefit from the klieg light of accountability that media scrutiny can bring to a case. In 2010, Texas Monthly reporter Pamela Colloff published “Innocence Lost,” a detailed investigative piece about a man named Anthony Graves who was convicted of a horrific murder despite the absence of a motive, a credible and consistent witness, or any physical evidence tying him to the crime.
After serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit, Graves was suddenly exonerated and released—just weeks after Colloff’s article was published.
While these cases demonstrate how public interest can affect the narrative of a case like Syed’s or Graves’s, the more important effects are wider-reaching. The popularity of programming like Serial and Making a Murderer have prompted not just a closer look at a few compelling cases, but a widespread deep dive into the machinations of criminal justice in America.
Most of us—especially if we’ve never been arrested, worked within the system, or served on a jury—tend to believe that our criminal justice system is fundamentally fair. We hold to the myths that, by and large, eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence are reliable, prosecutors play fair, police detectives are unbiased and competent, and no one would ever confess to a crime they didn’t commit.
If you’ve never experienced a faulty investigation or coercive interrogation firsthand, it can be easier to remain skeptical of assertions of innocence, error, or mistreatment like Syed’s. But like any human institution, the American criminal justice system makes mistakes. Jurors often decide guilt or innocence armed with little evidence (and little certainty).
But by highlighting the real-life shortcomings in Syed’s investigation and trial, Serial has opened many people’s eyes to some of the darker realities of how our system works (and sometimes doesn’t).
The fact that Syed is now receiving a new trial may shift public perception even further. It’s one thing to bring awareness to an issue, but another entirely to actually spur change. People are more likely to join a cause if they feel it’s not a lost one.
Awareness Brings Change
The public outcries following Serial, Making a Murderer, and Colloff’s reporting for the Texas Monthly may prove short-lived. More likely, they’ve opened the door for more reporting on wrongful convictions and error-plagued trials, and more high-profile re-investigations of cold cases, presented as entertainment.
The fact that these stories have captured the public imagination may signal important changes to come. Dispelling long-held myths about criminal justice paves the way for people to replace untested belief with curiosity and critical thinking about such issues.
Of course, it only works if reporters and producers hold themselves to a high standard of investigative rigor. Reality TV-style polemics change nothing. But if journalists and filmmakers use their investigative skills to highlight greater truths about our system and challenge accepted norms, they have the potential to nudge forward continental shifts in what people believe about their world. Policy changes are likely to follow.
For instance, according to Edward J. Latessa, Director of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice, prison sentencing reform has often lagged behind the evolution of public opinion on sentencing—mostly because officials make decisions based on what they believe people’s opinions to be. Latessa’s research showed that the key to bringing about change in correctional programs is educating people in power about what their constituents actually think.
“For example, when I ask policy makers to give me an estimate of the percentage of the public that they believe view the primary purpose of prisons to be punishment, they greatly overestimate the punitiveness of the public. As numerous studies have demonstrated, the public’s support for effective programs and rehabilitation is still strong.
Helping them understand that the public is not monolithically punitive and that the research shows that a large percentage support rehabilitative efforts can be a powerful way to begin breaking down some of the resistance they may have to developing effective correctional programs and alternatives to incarceration.”
This kind of social change is a monumental undertaking, and it won’t happen overnight. But when a cultural phenomenon like Serial storms our interconnected world at just the right moment—at a tipping point—the changes may prove irreversible.
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