On the last episode of the acclaimed podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig speaks to a retired police detective and asks him whether any murder case would raise the difficult questions raised by the case she focuses on. The detective replies that most cases are straightforward and few would present so many difficulties.
But is that true? It’s hard to tell. After all, in his book In Doubt, Dan Simon provides a conservative estimate of the percentage of wrongful convictions: about 4-5% of all convictions. Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan Syed, thinks that his conviction for the 1999 murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, is one of those. She enlists Sarah Koenig and the team to investigate, and they spend hours upon hours reinterviewing witnesses, digging up forensic evidence, and recreating the crime.
Indeed, Serial, and the subsequent show by Syed supporters Undisclosed, have raised considerable public interest in Syed’s case, which had only provoked some local interest at the time. And the latest news are that Syed has been granted a hearing to present new evidence. Which leaves me wondering the same thing that Koenig asked the detective: how many other cases, murder or otherwise, would merit a rehearing if they received the benefit of hours of careful, NPR-quality attention?
In his famous 1965 essay Normal Crimes, David Sudnow shows how defense attorneys manage to dispose of cases in negotiation with prosecutors. Their professional expertise allows them to fit each case to an existing prototype of cases, thus facilitating the attachment of a “price list” to each case. This means that the cases don’t really receive individual attention, leaving the bulk of professional time and attention for the few “abnormal” cases that go to trial. Whenever we hear about a dramatic exoneration, what we envision is someone who had been aggressively litigating and protesting for years, and who had been railroaded by the police and prosecution.
The interesting thing about Serial is that it doesn’t try to tell one of those stories. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a “normal crime”, but the show drags into the limelight what would appear to be fairly run-of-the-mill in terms of criminal trials. It is not a defense-oriented, the-government-is-the-worst-criminal sort of narrative that we’re used to hearing in cases of serious miscarriage of justice, such as the West Memphis Three and so many others. No one is particularly at their best, but no one seems to be at their absolute worst, either. Yes, there’s some racism; there’s some unexplained defense behavior (this is important, because habeas review is almost impossible without proof of ineffective assistance of counsel); but none of it rises to the level of shock we’ve been used to experience when reading Innocence Project stories.
To me, that’s the strength of Serial: showing the banality of a situation in which the factual disposition remains unclear. And it does so through Koenig’s persona, who remains agnostic about the facts. In a way, Koenig is a stand-in for a diligent juror; she repeatedly refers to procedural and technical details as “boring”, and classifies the evidence into “bad for Adnan” and “good for Adnan”. Her congenial, soft manner never pushes the witnesses to the point of big revelations (to the extent that those are even possible, fifteen years after the crime.) When she says, at the end of the series, that she feels like shaking up the witnesses “like an aggravated cop”, you almost wish she had done that in the previous eleven episodes.
And yet, it is precisely this softness and indecisiveness that lends the show its charm and magic. I haven’t yet listened to Undisclosed, and I’m hesitant to do so, because Koenig’s agnosticism makes me feel more respected and active than an enraged partisan party trying to enlist me to Syed’s defense. Which brings me to another thought: what Koenig is trying to accomplish resembles the role of the inquisitor judge in a civil law country: impartial, out there to find out What Happened. The adversarial system calls for partisanship under the assumption that the competition between the parties will yield the best evidence. But the resulting games of obfuscation result in anything but, and Koenig’s interviews with the jurors reveal just how much they were manipulated by the parties throughout the trial–regardless of whether they reached the factually correct answer.
I don’t know what will happen to Syed now that his case has been picked up. But I wish that many more seemingly simple, run-of-the-mill cases received this careful attention–if not from investigative journalists then from more active jurors and with less partisan manipulation.