Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

Last Friday, to pass some time while ill in bed, I started listening to the podcast SERIAL, which explores a real and very complex murder case from 1999. I don’t consider myself to be a fan of true crime, which is all too often voyeuristic and salacious, and so wasn’t expecting to get drawn in. But I found myself hooked from the opening of the very first episode, and by the end of the day had listened eight (EIGHT!) episodes.

SERIAL is a podcast phenomenon. Since it started in October it has become the fastest podcast on iTunes to be downloaded or streamed 5 million times, and is one of reddit’s most discussed topics. The series first crossed my radar when writer Linda Grant wrote about her fascination with it and I’m glad to have finally caught up, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

SERIAL is an offshoot of This American Life (a weekly radio show by Chicago Public Media), and is presented by journalist Sarah Koenig. This is how SERIAL’s website describes what the podcast is about:

>> On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A few weeks later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers. <<

So the podcast is a 360 degree examination of a murder case, one that Sarah carries out with great intelligence, care and respect for all the individuals involved. Although the hope is to get to the bottom of the case’s contradictions by looking at the evidence with fresh eyes, Koenig pledges to ‘follow the story where it takes us’, even if that means failing to achieve closure. It’s this willingness to accept all outcomes that is one of the series’ chief strengths; in many respects it is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of finding the truth.

Eleven episodes of SERIAL are currently available. The 12th and final episode airs this coming Thursday. If you haven’t yet listened, you might want to leave this post and head over to episode 1. If you’ve already caught up, you might be interested in reading on below…

What I’m not going to discuss is the (admittedly fascinating) question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, because it’s being dissected exhaustively elsewhere, and to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. Arguably, one of the few pitfalls of the podcast is that it’s been treated by some as a fictional crime whodunit, losing sight of the fact that the story is about real people. I’m more interested in the insights Sarah Koenig (SK) has offered listeners into the impact of murder, the minutiae of police investigations and the complexities of the trial process. These are meta-observations that have made me think really, really hard about the justice system in a way that I haven’t done before.

Memory. The first episode of SERIAL opens with an observation about how hard it can be to remember past events. Can you remember exactly what you were doing the whole of last Wednesday? Now, how about a Wednesday six weeks ago, which turns out to have been the day of a murder, in which you are a suspect? What happens if you genuinely can’t remember? Or if you think you can, but then realise you’ve got it wrong? Or if you can, but no one can corroborate what you say? Any of these could be the beginning of a road to wrongful conviction. Unless of course you’re lying, which is when things get even trickier.

A piece of evidence can appear utterly damning when viewed in one context, and completely innocent in another. It all depends on how you build it into a larger narrative or how you spin it. SK demonstrates this by discussing specific bits of evidence with those who think Adnan is guilty and those who don’t. The same applies in the courtroom: building a convincing narrative is key for the prosecution and defence. They are telling competing stories to the jury and are fighting for their own to be believed.

The power of narrative is also illustrated by the podcast itself (something that SK does not explicitly acknowledge). Episodes are constructed in such a way as to consider one side of the argument, then the other, and inevitably sway the listener back and forth as well (ooh, he’s guilty/nooo, he can’t be). There’s a cliff-hanger element built into the episodes, with previews of ‘next time’ promising new evidence that will keep us hooked. Very successfully.

On a moral level, we listeners are gripped by questions of guilt or innocence. But in a legal context, guilt or innocence may never be definitively proved. The more important question then becomes ‘is there reasonable doubt’?

Murder investigations are HUGELY complex. We all know this, but listening to over ten hours of detail about one case makes you appreciate that fact all the more. It instills a respect for police investigators, who have to process mountains of potential evidence and decide what it relevant and what is not. It also makes you realise how easily the truth can be lost if the wrong leads are followed, or if prejudices start to cloud investigators’ judgments.

The police are not necessarily looking for the truth. Rather, they are trying to build a case against someone. This means that there may be ‘verification bias’ present in the investigation – the disregarding of so-called ‘bad evidence’ that does not fit the detectives’ theories of what happened. Scary stuff, and this is why it’s so important for justice systems to have a robust element of defence and cross-examination, so that lots of difficult questions can be asked.

SK’s own investigations show us a range of different perspectives and voices: we hear sound clips of police interviews and court proceedings, readings from Hae’s teenage diary, SK’s interviews with family, friends and witnesses (all of whom were deeply affected by the murder), and her phone conversations with Adnan in prison. These are augmented by her own commentary on the difficulties she is encountering as she tries to figure out this ‘Rubik’s cube of a case’.

‘Cops assume that everyone is lying all the time’. A pragmatic, logical approach or a breach of the presumption of innocence? They will ‘offer the suspect a theme’ – meaning that they will discuss the subject of the crime in a way that suggests understanding to encourage a confession (e.g. ‘I can understand why you hit that man. After all he provoked you’).

‘How easy it is to stir stereotypes in with facts, all of which then gets baked into a story’. SK does a great job of exploring the possible bias of the judicial system (for example, the use of certain types of vocabulary in reports or in court). This quote is also a wonderful example of how SK sums up ideas in an accessible and interesting way.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis examine some evidence. Photo by Elise Bergerson.

I never quite realised how many factors can feed into the outcome of a trial: the quality of the prosecution or defence lawyers, cultural biases, the composition of the jury, alibis or the lack of alibis, the presence or absence of forensic evidence, the efficiency or inefficiency of the investigators (did they ask for that crucial item to be checked for DNA?), the willingness or refusal of witnesses to testify, the credibility of witnesses, etc. etc. etc.

If you are innocent, and continue to maintain your innocence following conviction, then your chances of parole are low, because the parole board is looking for evidence of remorse. So you can lie and get out, or be honest and stay in. Hmmmm.

SK and her listeners may be playing the role of the detective, but that does not remotely guarantee the discovery of a ‘solution’, because this is real life. Will the final episode offer listeners the closure they crave? At the simplest level, Adnan’s guilt/innocence may only be known to three people: murder victim Hae Lee, Adnan himself and his friend Jay. Of these last two, one has to be lying. I’m doubtful that SERIAL can reveal who’s telling the truth, but it certainly succeeds in showing us plenty of others.

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26 thoughts on “Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

  1. So sorry to hear you’ve been ill, Mrs. P! I hope you’re feeling better now. And I’m very glad you found yourself drawn in by Serial. Like you, I wondered about it because it’s not often I enjoy reading (I know: this is a podcast) about true-life crime. As you say, I think in cases like this it’s important to keep in mind the fact that it’s a real story.

    • On the mend now, Margot – thanks!

      I totally agree with you – we should never forget that the individuals under discussion are real people with real lives. One element that helps listeners to remember that are all the voices/clips of actual people, who talk in an unscripted and very thoughtful way about the case and the impact it’s had. I think it’s one of the benefits of the podcast/radio format in this instance. When I think of true crime, I tend to think of books with lurid images, or documentaries with lurid images. The radio format removes that visual pitfall and (obvious I know) makes you focus on the words being spoken instead.

  2. It’s all I’d been hearing about in the last few weeks, so I listened to Episode 1and most of 2 the other night before I went to sleep (I find audio books help me sleep, ditto, it seems podcasts!) I was going to mention it on the blog, just to see if anyone else had given it a listen, so I’m v glad you’ve done a post on it, as you’re way ahead of me! There’s something refreshingly old fashioned about listening to an extended narrative.

    • I did nod off about half way through one and had to restart, but did pretty well on the rest – mainly because the presenting is so well done. You’re right about the pleasures of listening – it was really enjoyable to listen rather than read/view for a change, and the experience might get me into audio books a little more. I like that you can potter around a bit while you listen too.

  3. Wonderful post, Mrs P ! I’ve loved listening to Serial since the first episode aired and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about everything you’ve written about as the episodes have unfolded. It’s been a particularly fascinating exploration into how a storyteller’s choices about how to construct a narrative (here I’m including both SK and the legal teams who originally told the story to a jury) have such a monumental impact on the mind of the listener. As someone who attended law school in the United States (not far from where this murder took place) and who now teaches law students how to construct persuasive legal arguments, this show is a veritable cornucopia of teaching tools and thought experiments. On a personal level, I’ve struggled most with the fact that Hae Min Lee was real, she was my exact age, and she is now dead: is it right for all of us millions to be voyeuristically listening to a story in which she is at once the focal character and also almost completely invisible? It’s hard not to feel like she’s little more than a convenient plot device for the show, and that makes me uncomfortable. Also uncomfortable is the fact that Adnan is at this very moment sitting in prison, quite possibly for the rest of his life. Whether he committed this crime or not, it’s hard not to feel discomfort at the way so many of us (myself included) have gotten swept up in the intrigue of this story without really reflecting on the day-to-day reality that this person is living. So much more to say… thank you again for this post!

    • Thanks for commenting, DC_Serial_Fan! It must be doubly fascinating listening to SERIAL from your perspective as a legal expert, especially when you teach others how to build those persuasive legal narratives. Do you think you might be tempted to use the series as a teaching tool yourself one day?

      I’ve thought about Hae Min Lee a lot too, and the question of how much space she’s been given in the narrative. I think SK does make an effort to give her a voice and a presence beyond that of a murder victim, through the inclusion of extracts from her diary (though I have to say I would not wish my teenage diary to be read out to anyone ever), as well as interview clips with her friends, and her mother’s victim impact statement. And SK does talk about Hae’s character and likes/dislikes at one point too, which I thought was important. Her family declined to take part, which I can fully understand, but one knock-on effect of that may be that we’ve heard less about her than we might have otherwise.

      And Adnan. Yes indeed. I picture him sitting in prison reading the transcripts of the shows and feeling utterly powerless as the narrative swings for and then against him, repeatedly. His family have also described what it’s like having ‘five million detectives trying to work out if Adnan is a psychopath’ (http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/dec/07/serial-adnan-syed-family-podcast-interview).

      One recent article quotes an intervention from one of the show’s producers in relation to online discussions and the need for sensitivity given that the show is about real individuals: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/nov/07/serial-listeners-detectives-troubling-results. But very difficult to enforce, of course.

  4. Glad you are on the mend Mrs P!

    I too have got sucked into Serial and like others don’t usually “do” real crime. One of many things that disturbs me is what appears to be very unstructured court questioning and police interrogation. Boring perpetrators into a slip-up might be a tactic used in the US court system but so far I don’t hear any very pertinent interrogation at all! Scary if you an Adnan!

    I am much more comfortable with fiction and wish my new found author Oliver Harris had completed another novel – his detective hero Nick Belsey, so corrupt, so loveable always fights to get the right man preventing his colleagues convicting obvious suspects!

    • Thanks, Mrs Felix 🙂

      I wasn’t overly surprised at the court proceedings, having seen lawyers in action in the courtroom as a jury member. What you hear is very different to what you might read in crime novels or see in a courtroom drama, although that sense of an overall narrative was also present in real life. But yes – hard to imagine days worth of testimony on cell phone towers, and Adnan’s lawyer did not seem to engage the jury in an effective way.

      Nick Belsey sounds like an interesting character – thanks for the tip!

  5. It’s a great series, all the more for the fact that I generally avoid real life crime stuff. I’m more than happy in my fictional world. But this has a compelling feel to the reportage that, as you found, makes you want more. I rather enjoyed listening to it on a week by week basis. It’s ages since I did this for a radio drama but it brings back memories of listening to a lot of English language radio when I lived in Greece. I also like the open-ended nature to the structure. I’m a big believer in uncertainties.

    • Quite a few of us have commented that we tend to avoid true crime, but have made an exception in this case – interesting. Perhaps the series has genuinely pushed the boundaries of the true crime genre/reportage, and taken it to a better place.

      I totally agree that the open-ended nature of the structure is a huge strength. It must take a great deal of determination to resist the drive to certainty and closure when working on a project like this, but the outcome is all the better for it: complex, thought-provoking and genuinely inquiring.

  6. So far, in serial, we see a lot of doubts about the quality of the evidence. So what’s good about serial for me is also how the american justice system seems to be on trial. What is an acceptable burden of proof required to put away a person for life?

    This guy was put away foreever because the juror’s believed shaky evidence by a so-called friend. That’s a dodgy premise without even going into the evidence trail, which serial does so comprehensively well.

    • Hello andyswarbs – thanks for your comment. I think you’re spot on – the American justice system is on trial here (and perhaps the law as well). What’s also interesting is that the experts called on to give their opinion on the strength of the case have differing views. The professor and innocence project team think that the state’s case was weak, whereas the private investigator thinks that it was quite strong, and certainly better than many he has seen. A key question, as you say, is the acceptable burden of proof, or, to flip it around, the level of doubt that constitutes reasonable doubt.

  7. It makes me very grateful to live in the UK – not that miscarriages of justice don’t happen here; I’m going to watch a programme later about a Scottish nurse who was accused of killing some of his patients, and, having read a fair bit about the case in the past, it’s disturbing that he was convicted. But Legal Aid helps a great deal – you know you’re not going to be represented by, say, an ambulance chaser lawyer in a murder trial – you can, to an extent, choose your representation and the SLAB will pay (Scottish Legal Aid Board.)

    • Perhaps oddly, I’ve not been thinking about the series in an American context, or at least not an exclusively American context. The points it raises could apply pretty well to a number of investigative and legal systems, I think, including our own. That’s one of the elements that makes the series so powerful to me.

      Yes, hooray for Legal Aid, though I think I’m right in saying that there have been reductions, both in terms of funding and access, that are a bit worrying. Perhaps those pressures have not been as acute in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK? There’s a brief Economist overview here: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21593471-under-financial-pressure-criminal-legal-profession-changing-crime-doesnt-pay.

      • Interesting article – although I think hell will freeze over before the law stops being a lucrative career! My parents live next door to an Edinburgh QC’s summer home and he told my Dad some years ago that when in court, he can bill up to £90 per hour! And the solicitors basically do all the work, he just “presents” it. Watching a good advocate can be like watching a play – there’s a real art to it! I think you’re developing a Serial fan club here – well done!

  8. End of year ” Winners and Loser 2014″ post is uploaded now I can just enjoy these last few weeks of the year doing something’ completely’ different. I’ve listened to This American Life and as you say…is addictive. I will line up these podcasts for the relax days and let myself get whisked off to a place out of my daily life and see how long they can keep me there. Thanks for being the best ‘ cheerleader’ of the crime genre’ !

      • I’m trying to read more crime and have borrowed some of your recommended sites. Classics are instructive, uplifting but crime lingers. I want to discover the craft the writers use to think up yet another mystery/detective story. The writers seem inexhaustable.

      • Yes, I think you need a lot of stamina to be a crime writer, especially if you have a series. I’ve heard a number of crime writers comment somewhat wearily on the ravenous appetites of their readers (though obviously great for sales!).

  9. The best review of Serial I have encountered online, congrats!! I did ponder on Adan’s innocence, because I couldn’t help myself. But as you say, what I learned while listening to Serial is that no matter whether you’re innocent or not, you can see yourself trapped in a murder investigation and end up going to jail. Or worse, be framed.

    Now, having listened to the whole season, I buy the idea of a third person that both Adnan and Jay are protecting, as SK herself suggested more than once on the series finale. Meanwhile, I hope new DNA testings show some light…

    • Thanks, Elena! There’s been a bit of a backlash to the series in the past few weeks, but I’m definitely standing by my view. It’s been one of the most groundbreaking crime narratives I’ve read/heard in a long time.

      The story of Hae, Adnan and Jay has really stayed with me. I very much hope that either Serial or someone else revisits it down the line and follows up on any new developments.

      • I was really, REALLY susprised to hear about the backlash, because I think Koenig did such a good job! But people just want life to be either black or white, but we live in grey… And we should make peace with it.

      • I totally agree, Elena.

        There were a couple of critics who took issue with the amount of airtime (or lack of it) given to Hae as the female victim and/or the way the serial may have fed a salacious interest in murdered women (with which I don’t agree). Perhaps of interest, as I know you’re looking into representations of women in crime…

        Here’s one example by Deborah Orr: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/19/was-serial-feeding-appetite-for-stories-about-murdered-women

      • Thank you! I was also worried about the time devoted to Hae, but I don’t think that the podcast did anything wrong regarding women in crime fiction. I’ve heard the same criticism for the TV show ‘The Fall’, which I actually found quite empowering and feminist.

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