A few weeks ago, loads of people on my Twitter started talking about a podcast, Serial. I ignored it until my friend Kim Curran binge listened to the whole thing in a few days. Then I learned it was by the makers of This American Life, one of my favourite podcasts. It’s the most downloaded podcast of 2014, with 1.5 million people listening in each week.
OK, I thought. I’ll stop ignoring it. I listened to the first episode. By the next day, I was caught up with the eight episodes available at the time.
Serial describes itself as “a podcast where [they] unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season.” Host and executive producer Sarah Koenig guides us through a fifteen year old cold case, examining the conflicting testimonies and essentially trying to see if she, her team, and the experts she consults can piece everything together.
In 1999, a high school student named Hae Min Lee went missing in Baltimore. Her body was found a few days later in a park, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder and sent to prison. He’s still in prison today, no longer a boy of 17 but a 34 year old man. The evidence they used to convict him was flimsy at best, mostly hinging on the testimony of Syed’s friend, Jay. Key potential witnesses were not interviewed. Adnan’s defense attorney was later accused of various frauds and disbarred. Some people are adamant that Adnan is guilty, and others believe him innocent. As each episode unfolds, I found my own opinions on Adnan vacillating wildly. At times it feels like everyone’s lying.
Each episode focuses on different aspects of the crime, or a different person involved in the case: the alibi, Adnan and Hae Min Lee’s relationship, where the body was found, the various inconsistencies, the key witness Jay. I found it also made me feel uncomfortable with the realities of human errors in investigations. There are so many gaps in this one cold case I can’t help but wonder—what about so many other cold cases, languishing, unsolved? How many times has the wrong person been convicted?
People have always been interested in crime, of course, and true crime books and documentaries are a huge market. Back in the Victorian era, most books were published in serialized increments, with anticipation building as each snippet was released. At Serial’s heart, Sarah Koenig is the detective trying to solve the case, but in many ways she’s just as mystified by it as the listeners are.
Serial has come under some criticism in its treatment of race. Others have leapt back to its defense, saying the show has made a point of exposing the racial-based stereotypes that followed both Min Lee, who was Korean-American, and Adnan Syed, who is Pakistani-American and Muslim, and Jay, who is African-American.
Yet while its thriller-like twists make for a great podcast, but it’s also impossible to forget that this is intensely real. This story may not follow the Hollywood format, where all seems lost and, at the very end, the key bit of information is revealed and—tada!—a happy ending and justice is served. Adnan Syed has spent half of his life behind bars, and he’s currently in the last stages of appeal. For him, it’s a matter of continued imprisonment or chance of freedom after fifteen years. And he might not get it.
Did it he do it? Or is he innocent? Will we ever actually, definitively, find out the truth? If Adnan didn’t kill Hae Min Lin, then that means her murderer has gotten away with it for fifteen years. Do Mae Min Lin’s family really like that this is being highlighted again after so many years? Is Serial actually affecting Adnan’s upcoming appeal in any concrete way? And what will happen to Adnan in January?
So many of us will tune in and listen, to see if any of our questions will be answered.