As The Conversation About Serial reaches a fever pitch in certain circles, those of us behind Code Switch and Monkey See have been talking quite a bit about the show. Here's the first part of our exchange, from Code Switch editor Matt Thompson:
Hi Linda, Kat and Gene,
I think we're still far enough away from the conclusion of Serial (ostensibly next Thursday) that predicting its ending is both brave and foolhardy, so let me lay it on you.
Sarah Koenig (SK, as the Redditors call her) has been investigating the truth of not one event, but two: a murder and a trial. I think it's easy to dismiss this as obvious, or to mash the two events together in our heads. Much of the conversation about the show understandably focuses on the murder itself, on the question of who might have killed Hae-Min Lee. But SK herself seems most fixated on the trial, and the system that gave rise to it. And I think that in her closing remarks, what she'll say is that whether we think Adnan Syed is innocent or guilty, it's hard to deny that the trial itself reveals that several of the fundamental stories we tell ourselves about our system of justice — the idea of "beyond a reasonable doubt," the presumption of innocence, the notion that "all facts are friendly" — are completely wrong.
Serial begins with SK telling us about the basic problem of memory, about how hard it is to reconstruct in minute detail the events of any average day. After she lays out the general facts of the case, she tells us about her quest to find the single person who does claim to remember the day of the murder in vivid detail: Asia McClain. Asia's memories, she tells us, are "legally worthless." "A witness who says she saw you at the exact moment when the state contends you were strangling a young woman in a car is worthless." As the episode comes to a close, she reveals that after six weeks of testimony and arguments, the jury deliberated for only a few hours before returning a conviction.
From there, in episode after episode, SK delivers a quietly searing indictment of the process that brought Adnan Syed to jail. In the second episode, when discussing how the state established Syed's motive, SK says this: "All this information, every scrap, it's currency for whatever side you're on. Spin. And the trouble with spin is that you can't totally disregard it, because swirling around somewhere inside, some tendril of it, is true."
In Episode 5, SK painstakingly reconstructs the timeline the state offered for how the murder might have gone down. She and Dana Chivvis walk us through the significant flaws in that timeline, and how that timeline fails to match up with cellphone evidence that was used in the trial. Piece by piece, SK is laying down her own case. Not really that Adnan Syed is innocent, but that the legal process is guilty. That there are so many faults in the way this trial went down that it's increasingly impossible to call it a just trial.
If SK's point is that the system's messed up, she could almost have ended at Episode 8, "The Deal With Jay." This is where she teases the idea that racial perceptions and loyalties could have been involved in the jury's verdict. It's also where she drops an alarming confession by a juror: Despite explicit jury instructions to not consider Syed's unwillingness to testify as a factor in determining his guilt, the juror reveals that Syed's absence on the stand was a huge consideration. "We all kinda like gasped, like, we were all just blown away by that," the juror says. "You know, why not, if you're a defendant, why would you not get up there and defend yourself, and try to prove that the state is wrong, that you weren't there, that you're not guilty? We were trying to be so open-minded, it was just like, get up there and say something, try to persuade, even though it's not your job to persuade us, but, I don't know."
Lauren Cusick wrote a good essay for Medium on why that statement is so shocking, and what it says about the concept of the presumption of innocence.
SK has also very effectively made the point that this trial wasn't exceptionally poorly handled, either by the prosecution or by the defense. In Episode 8, a detective who reviews investigations calls it "pretty much a dream case," from the prosecution's standpoint. "Better than average," he calls it. And while the actions of Syed's attorney, Christina Gutierrez, raise all sorts of questions about the quality of Syed's defense, I think SK ably argued in Episode 10 that she was a generally well-regarded attorney who did her very best with the case. (She also drops in another little dig at the justice system, right at the end: "Because Adnan has maintained his innocence, he's got no hope of getting out, or very little hope. That's how the system works.")
People have faulted Serial for being a dressed-up true-crime story, of playing into the salacious pleasure of the murder mystery, only with real people as the characters. There's some real weight to this criticism, especially if SK doesn't have a stunning confession waiting in the wings. After all, what real journalistic value is there in re-investigating this case if not to definitively prove Syed's innocence? Here I'll drop once again Mike Pesca's widely quoted quip: "Don't let this be a contemplation on the nature of the truth."
But it's not a contemplation on the nature of the truth, or even on the nature of justice. The way Sarah Koenig tells it, Serial is a story about our system of justice working pretty much as it should, and failing miserably at providing anything that looks like justice. I think in the last episode, she's going to point out that Adnan Syed was convicted in a few hours — beyond a reasonable doubt — for the murder of Hae-Min Lee. I think she's going to say that if the concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" meant anything, this podcast wouldn't exist, there wouldn't be a subreddit devoted to analyzing every shred of available evidence, and Adnan Syed wouldn't be in jail right now.
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