My husband has asked me multiple times to listen to the podcast “Serial.” I’m not big on committing to listening to anything, as I believe listening is a more difficult skill than reading, but I finally caved in to his request. I just finished the last episode of Season One today, and I can’t stop thinking about this. For those of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, “Serial” is a spin-off of “This American Life.” It focuses on the murder of Hae Min Lee and the question of what really happened with this murder. Adnan Syed is behind bars for first-degree murder, but did he really do it? This story of a true crime was told episode to episode each week for twelve episodes. At first, I didn’t think I would get into it. I’m not a fan of true crime stories. Yes, I like Criminal Minds and Law & Order, but I like them because I can remind myself that these are not actual events that took place. They’re fiction and far removed from reality. “Serial,” however, focuses on a real teenager who was murdered and dumped in the woods.
As I got into the series and listened more and more, I realized that the reason I do not listen to or watch true crime stories is because I empathize too deeply. The first time I watched the last recording of Hae Min Lee on YouTube I cried. I didn’t know how invested I was until I watched that video that my husband sent to me. The world had already become obsessed with this podcast, and I quickly did as well.
The last episode was a letdown for many people. Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer, didn’t end on a definitive guilty or not guilty stance. We, as a society, are so used to conclusions being succinct and neatly wrapped up that this last episode left us disappointed. Why listen to this whole podcast if you don’t even find out whether Syed is guilty is not guilty? However, so many great stories are open-ended. When I read the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I felt cheated. The story was too neat and tidy at the end. I could have made up my own mind about what Harry and the crew did after the defeat of the Dark One. Open endings make us think. They leave us thinking about the story way past when it ended, and this is what “Serial” has done.
“Serial” is set up as more of a story-telling podcast than a journalistic podcast. We hear Koenig putting in her two cents about what she is feeling and thinking; in journalism, these feelings are usually exempt, reporting just the facts and nothing else. Perhaps Koenig’s feelings have swayed audiences into thinking one way or another about Syed. I know they did for me. I waffled about Syed’s guilt just as Koenig did. I thought he was not guilty and then guilty almost at the same time Koenig expressed her feelings. Because this was set up as a story rather than a journalistic piece of work (they even sell it as “one story told week to week”), we felt for the people perhaps in a way we may not have had it been simply a good piece of journalism.
But the bigger issue presented in this podcast is not whether Syed is guilty or whether Jay, the witness, was lying. The bigger issue is people’s ignorance or misunderstanding about reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is defined as the following: “The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. If the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty.” This means that the prosecutor must show how the crime happened without any doubt or logical explanation of another way it could happen. The crime happened this way and no other. Many times jurors go into trials with a prejudice against the defendant (whether this is conscious or not). They assume that he/she is guilty solely because he/she is on trial. In our court systems, we tout the line “innocent until proven guilty.” In most cases, though, it is really “guilty until proven innocent.” Syed’s case was full of reasonable doubt; there were many different logical explanations that could be derived from the facts. However, as admitted by a juror in the series, Syed was assumed guilty simply because he was being tried. People trust the police to do their jobs for the most part, and do not take into account that it’s more a job of clearing one’s desk than of uncovering each and every fact. Detectives are overworked and underpaid. They simply do not have the time and resources to uncover every fact and give it the attention it deserves. They tend to find one person to attach a crime to and do not look for alternatives or uncover more stones. Is this an excuse? No, but let me just say that everyone involved in catching a criminal and trying said criminal is human and, therefore, full of flaws.
Adnan Syed did not have a fair trial. According to how our system works, he should have been acquitted based on reasonable doubt. There should have been that one person, a person akin to Juror 8 in Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, who said this was too important a case to not review all the evidence. A person to say deciding a man’s fate in two hours that includes a lunch break isn’t really giving the case the attention it deserves. A person to say all the evidence here is circumstantial (meaning evidence that does not directly tie the person to the crime and that requires a leap of faith and reason to believe it is hardcore proof of guilt), and there is reasonable doubt. A person to remind every other juror that Syed was innocent until they all decided on the verdict of guilty rather than looking and pondering whether he could be proven innocent. Sadly, this person didn’t exist for Adnan Syed’s trial, and this makes me wonder how many other trials lacked a Juror 8.
Do I believe Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee? I have no idea. I want to believe Syed didn’t do it because I like to think of the good in people and keep that rose-tinted outlook that people are not capable of such heinous acts. However, I know this is idealistic rather than realistic. Part of me hopes Syed is guilty of Hae’s murder because I can’t bear the thought of him in prison for so many years for a crime he didn’t commit. At least if he is actually guilty than those years served are for a purpose. However, I am aware that our prisons are full of innocent men paying a debt to society that they do not owe. Our system is flawed, really flawed, but I can’t offer a solution besides the education of reasonable doubt and circumstantial evidence and trying to push prejudices aside. The one thing I am sure of after listening to “Serial” is that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Syed. The state’s case was not strong enough. The reasonable doubt based on circumstantial evidence should have led to a verdict of “not guilty” regardless of whether Syed was guilt.