If there’s one thing to be said about the first Serial podcast, it’s that having to listen to it week by week must have been a nightmare. Husband finally persuaded me to listen to it this week, in readiness for starting on the next one, and we binged our way through the whole thing in about two days.
For those even later to the party than I was, the first series looks into the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. I won’t go into too many of the details – it is very much worth listening to the podcast if you haven’t already and I don’t want to spoil it – but the gist of it is that Syed has always maintained his innocence, and journalist Sarah Koenig was approached by Rabia Chaudry, the sister of Syed’s best friend, to look into the case.
In short, now that I’ve listened to the whole thing, I get it. I get why so many people were utterly hooked on this series. It is absolutely enthralling. Specifics aside – even without worrying about spoilers, it would be impossible to go into all of it – Koenig is a master storyteller. She draws you into the case, gradually unfolding it episode by episode, delving into evidence, taped police interviews, court testimony, the memories of friends of Syed’s and of Hae’s, their teachers, family, acquaintances – everyone she can think of who may be able to shed light on the matter.
At the end of it, of course, she doesn’t really reach any conclusions – how could she? One must remember that that’s not her remit. She’s not a legal professional or in any way involved in law enforcement. She’s a journalist with a natural curiosity in the case, and that curiosity does eventually turn into a bit of an obsession, but there are avenues she can’t pursue, lines of enquiry she can’t follow: she can’t compel people to talk to her, however frustrating that may be. All she can do is try to reopen some doors and find some answers that might eventually lead to a somewhat clearer picture, which she does.
What she does so well is use the audio she’s collected to weave a completely fascinating tale – her descriptions are so vivid, her narrative so engaging that she doesn’t really need much other than her own voice, some taped interviews and a bit of music. I can see why she became so deeply involved in this story, too. Of course, the whole narrative is inevitably coloured by her opinions and perceptions: as listeners, we can only follow where she leads. She’s not overbearing, though, and the really compelling thing about it is how easy it is to identify with her. In her shoes, we’d all feel as confused and intrigued as she does. As a journalist, I also found it interesting to see which issues she focused on and which she left aside. I’m not sure I’d have gone about it exactly the same way but then I don’t have access to all the information she did, and you have to remember this is actually an active case again – there will be a hearing at which the testimony of an alibi witness is heard and the reliability of cellphone tower evidence is questioned – so there are certain things that can’t be discussed. Also, if you can’t stand something up, as a journalist, you can’t make it public, especially where criminal allegations are concerned.
Because of that, I don’t want to speculate on what I think happened and who I think was involved (although interestingly, Husband and I came up with the same question after we’d heard it all) but I think it is clear that, protestations of innocence aside, there were big problems with the way this was tried back in 2000. That’s the thread running through the series: should Syed have been convicted on the strength of the state’s case against him?
I won’t give an answer. I know what I think, and I’ve heard what experts think, thanks to Koenig, but if I told you, that really would spoil it. And now to get started on the next season…
Serial is a podcast from This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, presented by Sarah Koenig.