Serial podcast – a review/analysis

This post is about a podcast documentary series called Serial, which you can listen to for free here:

As you listen, don’t forget to check the documents appended to the podcast. Each new episode takes you to a page where the documentary makers have appended copies of transcripts and court documents for you to look at in conjunction with the episode.

I’ve been kind of obsessed with this series since I listened to the first episode and I don’t think it’s because of the field I work in either. Everyone I’ve spoken to that’s listened to it has had the same response – it’s one of the most intriguing and absorbing things you’ll ever listen to.

Very basically it follows an investigation of more than a year about a murder that occurred 16 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. The victim and suspect were both in their late teens. Hae Min Lee, the victim, was a popular and pleasant girl. Adnan Syed, the 17 year old boy arrested 6 weeks later for her murder, was also a popular and pleasant kid, who also happened to be Hae Lee’s ex-boyfriend. He was tried and convicted and remains in jail to this day, but he has always maintained his innocence. The basis of the documentary was that the journalist was going to investigate the murder to see if his conviction was sound.

With copies of all the court documents, Police files and unprecedented access to both the suspect and the dozens of witnesses in the case, this is a deeply fascinating analysis of a complex case. Perhaps the most compelling parts for me as a listener were the actual tapes. Hours of recordings of conversations with Adnan and other witnesses, the original Police tapes, recordings from the court room – they’re a glimpse into the reality of the case. This isn’t some dry post mortem after the event – this is a case that’s right here in the present.

I think one of the many things that’s impressive about this series is that the narrator and lead investigator, journalist Sarah Koenig, is brutally honest about her feelings throughout the narrative. She wavers between thinking he did it and thinking he didn’t. The way she presents the team’s findings is unflinching and, most of the time, unbiased. She never looks at things in a one-sided way, unless she’s approaching some aspect of the case from a particular aspect and needs to come up with a reason why it may or may not be solid. This is the case with a call that looks bad for Adnan and they look at it, in the interests of fairness, to see if it can be made to not look bad for him in any way. They do find evidence that supports his version of events, making the call more ambiguous and less a ‘smoking gun’. The case is laid out clearly and in a way that’s easy for the listener to follow. Episodes usually begin with any new evidence that has come in since the last episode, an intro to what she’s going to discuss during this episode, any practical experiment of the evidence and then finishes with an analysis of how that evidence pertains to the case.

I walked away from the final episode of this podcast absolutely staggered that the prosecution ever took it to trial, let alone managed to get a conviction. I just can’t wrap my head around that at all. It’s a circumstantial case that’s so painfully full of holes, I just can’t understand how it was never ripped to shreds by anyone with half an ounce of investigative ability. Probably the most interesting thing to note here is that just because I don’t think he should ever have been convicted, it doesn’t mean that I believe Adnan is innocent. I think that’s the most astonishing thing about this case – I walked away from it with absolutely no idea what happened that day. I could say who I suspect was the one person that was definitely involved (surprisingly NOT Adnan Syed) but the rest is all between the butterflies and the big blue sky. About the only thing you do know for certain is that there’s no way in hell it went down the way the prosecution said it did. If it adds any significance to that statement, you should be aware that I work in the criminal justice system. It’s ingrained in me to come down on the side of the prosecution and I still wholeheartedly believe that this should never have gone to trial.

It’s kind of difficult to talk about the case in an abstract way, so please forgive any spoilers that happen from here on out.

One of the best things about this series is that it’s an emotional rollercoaster. As you listen, you get hit with these facts that just blow your mind. The first of these, for me, were the Asia McClean letters.

The prosecution stated that the murder happened within a very specific 21 minute time frame, based on call records, and the suspect cannot remember where he was on that day. Bearing in mind that he wasn’t asked about it until 6 weeks after the event and he freely admits to having smoked some weed that day, it’s perhaps not so surprising. Do you know what you were doing at 3:04pm on a specific day 3 weeks ago? 4 weeks ago? 5 weeks ago? The day after Adnan was arrested, he was sent a letter by a girl called Asia McClean, totally confused as to why he’d been arrested because she remembered seeing him in the library that day at the time the murder was supposed to have been committed. She went to see his family and then she wrote him a second letter the day after the first letter, expanding on her conviction that she had seen him and stating that her boyfriend and another friend had been with her that day and could speak to seeing him there. She knows for sure it was that day because her boyfriend gave her a row for speaking to another guy (Adnan), which stuck in her mind, and because they went to her boyfriend’s house that evening and then got stranded there for two days because of a massive ice storm that blew in that night. It was a rare and freak occurrence and so it stood out. Here’s the bit that blew my mind – despite the letters and despite Adnan passing on the information to both Police and Defence, Asia was never spoken to by either side. SHE WAS NEVER SPOKEN TO. BY EITHER SIDE. Neither were her boyfriend or boyfriend’s friend. This woman that could provide an alibi for the suspect, backed up with other witnesses, was never spoken to. Just…yeah. Mind boggling.

The second piece of information that utterly blew my mind was that they were so lax on the forensics. As part of the documentary into this case, the Innocence Project got involved and one of the things they’re looking into is that nothing from the body was ever tested for DNA. Yeah, you read that right. They didn’t appear to have done any forensics on any of the swabs from the burial site or from the body, never mind any of the nail scrapings or fibres or anything else. Listening to Adnan talk about this is one of the most emotional parts of the series – he’s trying to hold back his tears as he says (paraphrasing here) “they’ve had these samples for 16 years and it never occurred to them to test them?!”.

The problem with the case, as I see it, is that the prosecution decided what happened and then ignored everything that didn’t fit that world view. Their entire case was based on the testimony of one man – Jay – who was a supposed friend of the suspect. He stated that Adnan told him he was going to kill Hae Lee prior to the event. He stated that Adnan called him after the killing to say that he had done it and that he wanted collecting. Jay stated he had seen the body in the trunk of the car and that he had then assisted Adnan in burying the body and abandoning the car. His testimony was convincing enough for a jury to convict and what’s really interesting is that when Koenig and her assistant finally get an interview with Jay, they come away completely shaken. Up until that point they had been swayed by the inconsistencies in his accounts of the events, which kept changing from interview to interview, but having spoken to him, they were both blown away by how believable he was. At least until they picked his testimony apart, anyway.

A big issue with the prosecution deciding on a suspect and then pursuing him is that the motive that they come up with just doesn’t seem realistic, given all the testimony from that time. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that he was so messed up over their break up that he planned a cold-blooded and pre-meditated murder. The testimony just doesn’t support it.

A lot of fuss was made over the cell phone records during the prosecution, but it’s clear that the prosecution picked and chose which parts of that evidence to present and the defence, for whatever reason, chose to let it slide. The truth is that the cell phone records don’t even come close to matching Jay’s story. Not even close. There were 32 calls made that day from the phone in question and the cell towers that they ping from just don’t make any sense in the given context. The timeline, as given, is just impossible. The prosecution based the time of death on how they interpreted the calls, totally ignoring the fact that not only did the suspect have an alibi, a significant number of people saw Hae Lee still in the school grounds after the time she was supposed to have been killed.

It’s hard to condense 10 – 12 hours of podcast into one review/analysis and I suspect that as I listen to various episodes over again, even more details will pop out. It’s hard to completely explain my feelings about this series without giving a detailed breakdown of each episode and that would be way too spoilery for anyone that wants to listen to it and make up their own mind.

In the end I have to go with the conclusions of the presenter. Take your feelings out of it, take your bias out of it and look at the evidence. Disregard all shaky testimony and look at the solid facts. And when you look at the solid facts, there is only one. Jay knew where Hae Lee’s car was and led Police right to it. That is the single and only solid fact in the entire case. Jay knew where the car was. And somehow out of that they spun a conviction for someone else.

I’m not saying that Adnan is telling the truth. There are things that look bad for him and there are some things, such as what he and Jay were doing during the morning of the day of the murder, that I think he’s maybe even outright lying about. I think it’s interesting that during the time he and Jay were hanging out together in the evening, there were two cell phone pings from a tower near Leakin Park where the body was buried, but I need to listen to that episode again. I seem to recall that there were a lot of other things within range of that cell tower that were entirely innocent. But still…it’s more solid than some of the evidence they dredged up.

I’m conflicted about his guilt, but I know for damn sure that he should never have been convicted on the evidence presented against him. I’d honestly say that the prosecution had more of a case against Jay, but they gave him a plea deal in return for his testimony against Adnan. The only reason I can think of for that is that they couldn’t spin a reasonable motive.

In conclusion, I’ll be watching his appeal with interest and you can bet your ass that I’ll be the first to sign up to the new series of Serial when they present another case for our viewing pleasure. It’s expected some time this autumn and I can’t wait.

Listen to this series. You’ll be intrigued, confused, swayed, astonished and emotional and I promise you that you will not regret it.

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