When I first got into Serial, a podcast from one of the names behind This American Life (which I've never listened to), I thought I was getting into a fictitious murder mystery story. I'd been looking around to get some suggestions for podcasts I should try, and Serial seemed to come up fairly often. I'm not sure how I managed to miss the part about this being an investigative piece on a true crime story, though. Over the span of twelve episodes, Sarah Koenig investigates a curious murder case that takes place in Baltimore, Maryland. This is long and spoiler-filled.
Leading into this podcast, there was a brief discussion about people's memories and how events are remembered. If something monumental happened to a person, memories tend to be sharper. If it was just an average day, things were murkier, more general. Kids seemed to have a foggier memory if nothing of note happened. Girls seem to recall things more vividly than boys. This is important because much of this case was based on what did or didn't happen one January day in 1999 as told by a bunch of teenagers. Also, revisiting the case meant asking people to recall memories from 15 years earlier, and memories are tempered with time. Can you recall what you were doing in mid-January of 1999? I asked myself this question.
In 1999, the year this murder happened, I was a high school junior. I was on the cusp of seventeen. What do I remember about that time? I remember that my best friend and I weren't speaking to one another because another mutual friend, whose family had moved a couple of hours away, was angry at me because of a boy, naturally. My best friend felt her friendship with our other friend was more important to her than her friendship with me, so I became good friends with my best friend's archenemy in retaliation. We eventually made up. In other words, it was high school, and I was doing high school things.
The only reason I remember this moment is because it was such a big deal in my teenage life. I remember this happening in January because we'd recently come back from Christmas break. I was still adjusting to a new schedule for the new semester, which turned out to be a blessing because I saw less of my best friend. We didn't have any classes together anymore. The introduction of a Spanish class that I took with her archenemy afforded me time to get to know this other girl. While I was dealing with those "world ending" issues, hundreds of miles away, a group of teens were trying to recall what they were doing when their friend disappeared.
Serial investigates the 1999 murder of high school senior, Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was eventually tried and convicted. He received a life sentence and has been in prison for the past 15 years. You're probably asking: "If her murderer is in prison, what's the mystery here?" Despite Adnan being convicted of her murder, the evidence and circumstances surrounding Adnan's conviction were a bit sketchy with Adnan's convinction resting mostly on the testimony of a unreliable witness and cell phone records that supported the claims but also had large unexplainable holes. Also, during this time, Adnan had maintained his innocence (and continues to do so), but he's not able to offer a real alibi for himself. He can only say that the story presented by the state's key witness didn't happen.
Sarah Koenig is the acting investigating reporter for this story. It took her a year to completely tell this story as she tried to navigate its complexity. The first step involved her speaking with Adnan's family to get a general idea of the case. From there, she speaks to witnesses, experts, and even Adnan himself to attempt to figure out what happened the day of Hae's disappearance. Let me warn you now. If you think this podcast solved anything, you probably don't watch enough true crime television to know that these things rarely give a conclusive answer. However, this podcast does help to expose some huge holes in the case against Adnan.
The state's case rested on one witness--a guy named Jay. Jay sold weed to Adnan and his friends, and he often smoked with them. Jay testifies that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body after Adnan strangled her (an event he did not witness). Jay presents a problem as his story frequently changes about the events of the day. At one point, he makes up a whole excursion where he and Adnan make a stop at another park and waxed poetic about Hae's death while smoking. Never mind that this just could not happen on such a tight timeline. The state had a timeline of events according to them and trips to smoke weed and be poetic did not fit the narrative. Jay eventually removes that excursion from the story and some of the other added details from his various versions of the day. However, some of the important parts of Jay's story never change.
Adnan's cell phone records were a bit strange as well. While they seemed to support the timeline somewhat, there's also moments where this question is posed: If they're supposed to be at point (A) at a certain time, then how in the world was his cell phone hitting a tower at point (B), which is quite a distance away from (A)? Adnan insists that he allowed Jay to use his car to pick up a gift for his girlfriend who happened to a good friend of Adnan's. He also left his phone with Jay so that he could call him to come pick him up after track practice that afternoon. Jay says that Adnan left the car with him, so he'd have a reason to ask Hae for a ride. He says that Adnan later calls him from the Best Buy parking lot, and that's where Adnan shows him Hae's dead body in the trunk of her car.
Confusing, right? Well, add to that that evidence wasn't explored by Adnan's attorney, some evidence wasn't fully investigated by the police, and Adnan can provide no useful information for his whereabouts, and you have a case burdened with frustrating conundrum.
To be honest, I don't believe that Adnan doesn't know anything about Hae's murder. Even with some of the evidence being shaky at best, the evidence that does hold up seems to indicate that Adnan has to know something. Did he kill her? Maybe so, maybe no. There's plenty of reasonable doubt there. What parts are true from Jay's story and what parts are fake (other than the obvious lies he told) is anyone's guess. I can't say that I would be entirely comfortable with convicting someone of murder largely based on Jay's testimony.
Before I go any further, I did want to mention how frustrating it was as a black woman to hear the detectives and even Sarah trying to rationalize how Jay could be so scared of the police that he decided it was better to help dispose of the body than turn Adnan in to the authorities (assuming Adnan did it). No matter what lies Jay may or may not have told, one thing held true. I feel like he was being mostly earnest when he tried to explain his distrust/fear of the police, how he'd been harassed in his own neighborhood, in front of his own house even.
I know the detectives are well aware of the sentiment that many minority communities have toward them, even in 1999, and I feel like their derision of the Jay's excuse was probably more of a police tactic. Sarah trying to "make sense" of that really felt like someone saying the experiences of people of color with the police aren't legitimate unless they can reduce it to terms that satisfy them. Never mind that they'll never know what it's like to be a PoC living in this country and that PoC experiences don't have to be rationalized and validated by them to make it true. Minority communities have historically been wary of the police. This isn't something new. While Jay could've been lying through his teeth about his fear of cops, I do feel that he voiced an important aspect of the relationship between PoC and the police.
Why would Jay implicate himself in something that didn't happen? I think that question is what made jurors believe the important parts of the testimony. I think there's some truth in Jay's testimony. I do think that he helped to bury Hae body. I do believe him when he says that he got rid of the tools and clothing from that day. I think I even partially believe that he buried the body with Adnan. However, I can't say who might've killed her. Maybe Jay did it. Maybe Adnan did it. Maybe some third party did it and they tried to dispose of the evidence for whatever reason. Maybe Adnan paid Jay to help him. Maybe Jay made the whole story up and it's an unfortunate coincidence that the cell phone records match the timeline in places, but the timeline could theoretically have also been wrong and only used because it fit what prosecutors say happened. Jay never confirms Hae was actually killed when the prosecutors say she had to be killed (which is actually not concretely when she had to be killed) and then shoehorned the cell records to fit their narrative. I don't know. I just feel like they, even Adnan, know something regardless of who's lying and who's not. The Universe would have to have been saying, "And fuck you in particular, Adnan," for me to believe he knows absolutely nothing.
Then, I had a crazy theory that maybe it did happen mostly like Jay described, but maybe there was a method to his madness with the story changes. Maybe he kept changing his story, hoping they'd realize he was an unreliable witness, then Adnan would walk. There doesn't seem to be much malice between the two men. Adnan mentioned trying to stay emotionally neutral. However, he freaks out when Sarah asks him about stealing from the mosque, but can't be motivated into some kind of response toward the man who helped to get him convicted. Add to the fact that Jay never served time even though he was considered an accessory after the fact for his part in helping to bury Hae. Even if I wasn't banging the phone against the wall, I'd have some choice words for Jay. It just feels suspicious, but this is more of a conspiracy theory explanation at any rate.
Thanks to Sarah's digging and bringing this case to a very public platform. Adnan's case has been taken up by The Innocence Project. During an episode of Serial, she talked to Deirdre Enright and her group of students from the University of Maryland Law School, who work with the project, purely to get a speculative theory on how strong the case against Adnan was. (Not very for his murder conviction, they said.) In the end, the case interested them enough with its inconsistencies that they taken the case on as one of their actual projects. They're having the items from the case DNA tested and following another lead they've found independent of Sarah. It'll take five months before they know the results of the DNA test. This podcast wrapped up in December of 2014, which is also when that bit was revealed, so I'm going to assume we won't hear about the DNA results until April or May, if we hear about them at all depending on what that team discovers.
I can't imagine how harrowing this podcast must've been (and still must be) for Hae's family. Hae's family didn't talk to Sarah, but they are aware of its existence. They seemed pretty convinced the justice system did its job. To have this possibility thrown out there that maybe Adnan didn't do it has to be a burden or maybe no amount of evidence about reasonable doubt could change their mind that he's guilty, but they still have this burden. You have complete strangers dissecting Hae's death all over again and dredging up old hurts in the most impersonal of ways. Sure, many podcast listeners express sympathy, but much of it is directed toward Adnan. The feelings come from what their friends and acquaintances say about the murder, whether Jay is lying, whether Adnan is lying, and not from the fact that Hae was murdered and that is tragic. Sarah didn't do a very good job at making Hae seem like more than a prop in an investigative story about her very own death. Where is the sympathy and reverence for the true victim of this story?
Serial was an addictive listen regardless of some of my issues with it. Sarah came out with an overall feeling that Adnan didn't murder Hae. I can't say that I felt the same. I agree there is enough doubt there, but I do believe he factored into her murder somehow and we may never know how. Even though Sarah had an obvious bias toward believing Adnan, she didn't necessarily make it seem like her listeners had to share this same idea. She presented facts that may point to Adnan being guilty. She pointed out the holes in his story. She allowed her listeners to be on the fence or disagree with her assessment of Adnan's guilt. Serial has been funded for a second season, and I'm curious to see how they'll follow this case.
Update: It looks like the court has reopened his appeal.