‘Serial’ represents power of public voice

“Previously, on ‘Serial’-”

Cue the familiar sing-songy backtrack that chimes to listeners nationwide, signaling the next installment of America’s beloved podcast. Host Sarah Koenig, a journalist from NPR’s “This American Life,” entrances us with the cycle of speculation that is the Hae Min Lee murder case of 1999. We tune in and wait for resolution, knowing that this achingly unsatisfying story is a thing of the past, but we hope for developments nonetheless. Is Adnan Syed, the 33-year-old Maryland native, a murderer or the victim of an unfair trial? Is this charming, seemingly even-tempered man innocent? Do we want him to be?

As the podcast comes to a conclusion in its 12th episode, Koenig professes that she is unsure if there’s even a story to be told here; she is looking into a murder that is considered solved, and no new information has come to light to suggest an alternate outcome in court. Syed asks in the show, “So you don’t really have, if you don’t mind me asking, you don’t really have…no ending?”

This, however, might soon change. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals on Friday scheduled a June 2015 hearing for Syed’s case, and hope for closure in Koenig’s desperately inconclusive ending has been restored to the nation. As the case is reopened, the story will continue­—and with it the entertainment.

In conversations with family and friends regarding “Serial,” the topic of Syed’s innocence is always approached objectively, and to me this seems strange. Listeners are mistaking  themselves for jurors, hearing fact after fact and weighing each interview, each phone call or piece of evidence, with the gravity of a judge. Even I am guilty of this. We review all the components of the murder that Koenig draws attention to, taking into account the racial biases, shaky alibis, incriminating phone records, witness testimonies and so on. The format of the podcast allows us to envelop ourselves in the case, sparking our interest like a binge-worthy TV show while engaging our reasoning like an antiquated game of Sudoku, and this is has deceptively combined “Serial[’s]” entertaining aspects with reality. After all, the show is a spin-off of “This American Life,” a podcast dedicated to sharing interesting, truthful stories. Syed’s story, one that Koenig simply intended to inspect, has morphed from a passive narrative of the past into a revived investigation. This makes me wonder: If it weren’t for the overwhelming power of 21st century fads and the amazing clout of a podcast like “Serial,” would the courts have actually gone back and revisit the case as they’re doing now?

I admit that I am a mild supporter of Adnan’s cause. How can’t I be? As unbiased as Koenig attempts to be, the podcast very transparently sympathizes with Syed’s defense, including testimonials from his Pakistani community members and distraught parents, stories of his relatively upstanding boyhood and interviews with the inmate in which he convincingly plays the part of the regular guy stuck in an unfavorable situation. I can’t listen to each episode and easily deem the man an impulsive killer, nor can I accuse him of sociopathy or any other mental condition that interviewees propose. Like most others, I find that he just seems nice. But aside from these feelings of compassion, I don’t see any holes in the case glaring enough to justify a rallying together of us against the courts and for Syed’s legal cause.

The appeal being heard by the Maryland courts is grounded on the belief that the late Cristina Gutierez, Syed’s original attorney, botched the proceedings and screwed over her client in the process. Gutierez allegedly denied Syed the opportunity to seek a plea deal with the state, and as can be heard on the podcast, her efforts in the courtroom were disorganized and hardly effective. She also neglected to call alibi witness Asia McClain to testify, a move that would’ve contradicted the story of the prosecution’s star witness, a man named Jay, challenging the validity of Jay’s account of the day of the murder. Yes, Gutierez faltered in her strategy and was clearly not performing well in court, but is this a substantial reason for an appeal? If anything, the true error here lies in the fact that the state failed to piece together a solid case with reliable evidence, testimonies, or even motives. (Syed is painted as the resentful ex-boyfriend, but by all accounts, the teenage break-up between himself and Hae Min Lee was a normal one.)

I think that there is ample reasonable doubt in the case, but if a jury 15 years ago disagreed, how can a new trial be legitimate? Sarah Koenig has not uncovered a bed of new information, nor has she upended the prosecution’s argument. Gutierez’s inadequacy is not a newfound conclusion, but an element of which Syed, his family and his supporters were well aware even at the time of the court proceedings. It’s interesting to see how Koenig incorporates this information when presenting the Syed case.

So, putting our pro-Syed biases aside and considering the lack of facts crucial for re-investigation, we can concede that this turn of events is the dangerous product of the combination of mass media influence with real social occurrences. “Serial” has given Americans the chance to project entertainment onto reality—our skewed opinions and forceful obsession with trending pop-culture have impacted the legal system, and whether an appeal for Adnan Syed is ultimately appropriate or not, I am wary of this show and the tangible power of public opinion.

 

—Emily Sayer ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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