Monsters & Flaws: The subtle significance of Serial

I chose not to use a real photo to be mindful of the value of listening to the podcast

I chose not to use a real photo to be mindful of the value of listening to the podcast

I started listening to Serial out of curiosity.  A few friends said it was “really good.” For 24 hours, it consumed me. But not because of a morbid fascination with ‘who done it’ stories, nor because of some longing to know whether this story was an extra special case of the system going wrong.  Serial was is incredibly important for much more than the basic plot narrative of the life a 17-year old convicted of murder or an honor student who lost her life.  The words Pakistan and Korea and Race and Justice are all components of this intricate tale, but the real value is potentially bigger than any of these hot button words.  What follows is my experience of Sara Koenig’s Serial

Please note if you haven’t listened to the whole podcast series, you should do that before reading any further.  It won’t “spoil” the story – these are people’s lives after all, not a novel. But I think this series is the type of thing one ought to experience in the first instance before having everyone’s filters descend on you.  Fortunately for me, I got a nasty, anti-biotics level sinus infection right before Christmas and was basically stuck in bed for almost 48 hours – so it was a perfect time to do the equivalent of a DVR marathon and crank through the whole season of 12 episodes in one sitting.

I was so unaware of the premise going in that I wasn’t sure if someone actually was murdered or if the audio clips of interviews and re-read court transcripts were really just the renditions of really talented actors and writers.  At first, whether it was “real” or not didn’t much matter, the characters were intriguing and the plot seemed well thought out and full of mystery.  It seems silly now, as I quickly learned I was listening to a real story about an actual death and an actual life sentence that happened to actual people.  I’ll come back to why this realization is so vital to the larger social context of the podcast, but first I should give some basics (the next few sentences won’t reveal much).

A 17-year old popular honors student who is good looking and athletic is sentenced to life in prison for murdering his 18-year old also popular, also good-looking and athletic honors student ex-girlfriend in suburban Baltimore in 1999. So far, this reads like some tired old plotline from a Dateline or any number of cable TV shows out there pedaling creepy unsolved mysteries for the voyeurs among us.  I am, embarrassingly I suppose, among the group I just described.  I watch with interest and fascination these real life murder mysteries, never giving much thought to the lives of the actual human beings involved.  And in some way that’s how those stories are framed and packaged, so I don’t feel as bad as I should I guess.  That’s not great to admit, but it’s true.  The story of how Hae Min Lee lost her life and how Adnan Syed lost his freedom is about way more than a tragic loss of life – something far too many families in Baltimore know a lot about. It’s also about much more than the avalanche of unanswered questions surrounding the investigation, though the cascade of bizarre facts does serve the important role of keeping you coming back for more.  The overwhelming importance of Serial is in two things you might not even consciously notice while watching listening (it feels like a T.V. show, hence the typo).

A person, not a monster

At this point, you’ll really want to stop reading what I’m writing and go listen to the podcast.  The rest of this may color the way you hear the show.  Listening to the voices in this story did something unique. It had the human character of watching a movie, but the lack of visual cues eliminated some of the biases that accompany our stereotypes and predispositions about how people who look or sound a certain way are likely to behave. I’ve since circled back to see google images of the main players. It changes things for some reason. We, most of us anyway, have a perspective of people who murder and physically assault others.  We view a person’s presence in prison as our license to treat him or her like a monster.  Most people, for good reason, can’t imagine killing someone.  We can’t imagine being in a mental space in which taking someone else’s life or beating them into permanent injury is a meaningful option for our own conduct.  As a result, we easily discard the ‘monsters’ in prison as “belonging” there and we sleep easier at night with that knowledge.  But what we don’t realize is that these mental shortcuts have real-world affects because being in prison is not, for most people, a permanent condition.  This is important because we are also employers. We are mothers and fathers and apartment owners and neighbors.  And the same virulent disgust that we feel for the convicted murderer or the drug kingpin stops us from hiring, from renting, from even living next to these “monsters.”  The civil “us” has no qualms about pigeon-holing the less-than-human prisoner “them.” Then along comes Adnan Syed, the American born son of Pakistani immigrants, affably telling us stories that we listen to in the safety of our cars, our treadmills, or, in my case, our sickly convalescing, tissue everywhere, curtains drawn all day bed. And that all changes.

Adnan is more than a likeable voice on a podcast, he genuinely sounds like a nice guy.  He has a mild accent that you could easily mistake for African-American and a facility with the spoken word that makes him sound well-educated and very easy to listen to. This last sentence is, of course, a bias, but one I suspect many who listened share.  Every time he tells a story – even when he’s acknowledging that people may not believe him – he has an ease that reminds me of conversations I have with my friends all the time.  Adnan has a natural ability not just to get you to see things from his perspective but to do so in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s trying to convince you of anything.  It’s strange to explain, but we all have friends like that (or are ourselves like that) and he is certainly that guy.  Here’s the gut-punch of the whole thing. You really don’t know if he murdered his ex-girlfriend Hae Min or not – and THAT makes Serial really, really important.  Here’s why.

I listened through all 12 episodes and came to one meaningful revelation about this series: even if he murdered his ex-girlfriend, he’s not a monster. The reason this revelation is so important is that it means there is a strong likelihood that many of the millions of people who are in prison, on parole, or previously convicted of even the most violent felonies are also not monsters.  It defies logic that the creators of Serial would be able to find the lone good guy in the entire maximum security prison and write about him.  The more likely version is that plenty of people in prison are actually decent people, ‘good guys’ if you will, who did a very bad thing.  While I do agree that people should be judged on what they do rather than what they say, it’s also reasonable to look at a person’s life and not see the one bad thing – even if it is unforgiveable and frankly terrifying – as counteracting the rest of who they are.

I don’t want to go confusing my revelation with a bunch of clap trap about everyone in prison being misunderstood or being the victims of circumstance or ‘the wrong crowd.’ There are plenty of people in this world who will take advantage of you for no other reason than because they can. My point here – and one of the truly important parts of this story – is that Serial gently sneaks into our psyches the notion that assuming every convicted felon is a monster is misguided.  And perhaps some of the people listening, when they get into positions to hire, to rent a room, to give a second chance, will be moved by this part of Serial’s narrative.

Our system of justice needs work

Much has been written, including this ACLU piece about the justice system. I don’t imagine Serial set out to be a dialectic on the flaws of American criminal jurisprudence. But the ins and outs of this story lead you to come to grips with one very serious truth: the safeguards that protect our due process aren’t really all that safe.  Look, I’m a lawyer. I value the legal system and believe it gets it right more often than it gets it wrong.  But that may be more by chance than I’ve previously cared to admit…and this story lays bare some serious inadequacies in our system.  These inadequacies, it turns out, don’t hinge on whether you believe Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee.  We require that a criminal conviction is only warranted if the government can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that person X did bad thing Y.  You’ve got to listen to Serial to get the dizzying collection of facts and interviews and cell phone evidence.  But once you’ve done that, you’ll see that the evidence seems weak.  Very, very weak.  And Adnan’s boy Jay seems like he had more than his share of shady dealings going on back then that might have reasonably cast more suspicion his way.  Plus the whole ‘murder in the Best Buy parking lot at 2:30 in the afternoon before track practice’ thing sounds absurd on its face.

His supposed motive was that roughly five to six weeks earlier his girlfriend had broken it off and he was upset about it.  Not so upset that he flew off the handle, but instead that he hatched a plan four weeks after the break up to murder her.  A very stupid plan with lots of less than well thought out hurdles.  You’ll learn that no one saw he and the ex-girlfriend together after school that day, that some friend (Jay, mentioned above) had his car and his cell phone for much of the day and that the prosecution contends Hae Min was strangled at about 2:30 p.m. in a Best Buy parking lot in an approximately 26 minute window after school got out.  I want justice for victims, but to me that means a bit more certainty about who committed the act than the evidence here seems to suggest.

I provided a brief run-down of the evidence, such as it was, to say that one way the system is flawed is that this case suggests we don’t require that much evidence before depriving someone of the rest of their free life.  But Serial exposed other, less obvious weaknesses in the system.  It exposed a prosecutor securing a private sector attorney for the star witness.  It exposed a defense attorney who ignored an eyewitness account that put Adnan in a library at the time of the murder.  To be clear, this eye witness could have been lying, but the point is the defense attorney never even spoke to her.  The less obvious weakness that most don’t often see is that the Sixth Amendment Constitutional protection for ineffective assistance of counsel (i.e. a really bad defense) sets an exceedingly low bar. The DNA in this case was never tested, the person who led police to Hae Min’s body after the crime never had his house searched, and was given probation and no jail time for what he claimed was helping bury the victim’s body. This leads to what I might consider the biggest inadequacy in the system – a lack of resources to do the level of work that ought to be done. I don’t want people thinking that killing someone won’t have consequences.  But I also don’t want the investigations that build cases to turn on whether a given DNA test or channel of investigation is too much of a cost burden to the police department to bother with. I could, by the way, carry on for quite a while on the merits of empowering 12 average people with zero training in body language, forensics or countless other fields of importance in a typical criminal case to pass judgment on guilt or innocence.  But for now I’ll just say I think this is an area of the justice system that could probably benefit from technological advances, some critical analyses, and a better budget.

As I type this I can’t tell if Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee. There is only one, possibly two, living people who know the definitive answer to that question. But the larger issues raised by the case don’t actually turn on whether he did or not.  I could write a whole separate piece on what it felt like to hear Sarah Koenig as the narrator of much of this series. Or about the racial and religious and cultural undertones that play themselves out in the background of this story.  But these two things – the humanizing of a possibly violent person on the one hand and the frailties of a system that relies on 12 people to administer its justice and rather small budgets on the other – these are the things that really stood out about Serial as I listened. And these are the things that can take this from just an intriguing and entertaining story to helping do what I hope all good journalism does – move the needle on important social issues that impact us all.

Post Script: The series does’t have an ending.  It just finishes.  The 12th episode doesn’t lead to some big reveal.  And in my opinion that is one of the best things about it.  This isn’t some Hollywood manufacture job, it’s a real story involving real people.  Isn’t “we’re not really sure” the way many things in life go?  I like the end of the series because it is a possibly unintentional reminder that frequently in our system there is no neat little bow to package things up and allow us to move on.  There is plenty of information on the Internet for those feeling like they want to know more about where the facts of this particular case are going. But again, my hope is that Serial becomes a mechanism for shifting how people view every case.

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