Welcome to the final part in our discussion of “Making a Murderer” and “Serial” — two important series that might have a lasting impact on how high-profile court cases come unraveled in the court of public opinion.
In part one, we looked primarily at “Making a Murderer” and the whirlwind of controversy that met the acclaimed series when it debuted on Netflix last year.
This time around, we’re delving into “Serial” — a podcast spin-off from Ira Glass’ celebrated NPR series “This American Life.” “Serial” is perhaps more unconventional than its TV counterpart, and it has almost single-handedly revitalized the podcast as a creative medium. By February of 2016, “Serial” had been downloaded nearly 70 million times.
The Subtlety of “Serial”
Whereas “Making a Murderer” has the benefit of the television treatment, along with all of its visual splendor, “Serial” is a vastly different affair. It’s as though “The Sopranos” had a season-long guest spot on NPR and decided to air the family’s dirty laundry in tantalizingly small doses.
For the uninitiated, “Serial” tells the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, who attended Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School before she was murdered in the winter of 1999. Lee’s boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, became an immediate person of interest and was arrested for her murder on February 28 of that same year. Syed’s life from that point on became a convoluted series of trials, mistrials, sentences, innocence pleas and attempted appeals. Syed’s first trip through the justice system ended in a mistrial, but a second trial found him guilty in 2000. Despite pleading his innocence, Syed was sentenced to life in prison.
Fast-forward to February 2015 — just a few weeks after “Serial” wrapped its first season and introduced the American people to Syed and his story — and things were getting interesting yet again. The Court of Special Appeals in Maryland, after all that time, finally decided to allow Syed the opportunity to appeal his case. Whether this decision was influenced by the success of the show is one of the biggest unanswered questions.
Why the Controversy?
As with “Making a Murderer,” showrunner Sarah Koenig stripped away, piece by piece, all the trappings of an almost shockingly ordinary murder and its aftermath until only one thing remained: Uncertainty. Again, remember that Syed’s appeal wasn’t granted until weeks after the first season of the show wrapped. Until that time, the audience was left puzzling over even the smallest details of the case, looking for reason to doubt the story that had emerged from the prosecution: That Syed was guilty, and that he deserved life in prison — or worse.
Among the choicest morsels offered up for public mastication was a piece of cell phone evidence, which had listeners scratching their heads and doubting the “official” story. And consider this: When the show first began its run on the national airwaves, the producers were still in the process of gathering information.
This, more than anything, exemplifies the undercurrent of doubt that ran all through the first season of “Serial.” Although NPR and the showrunners knew they had a compelling story on their hands, they didn’t yet know what their new evidence would turn up. They didn’t know how their story would end — or what their show might mean for Syed’s long-refused appeal.
Art From Uncertainty
Said Ira Glass of the series: “What really happened was actually much more complicated than what the jury heard … we will go with Sarah on her hunt to figure out what really happened.” But he went even further, suggesting that the people closest to the series — Koenig, Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis — had all changed their minds about Adnan’s guilt at least once each during the show’s production. It would seem that they had stumbled onto information that had not been in evidence for the original trials.
Whether this new information will bring about a seismic shift in the outcome of the case is, even now, uncertain. Evidence toyed with the show’s producers and the listeners. With each new piece of heretofore unseen or unheard testimony or evidence, there was another right behind it that returned the narrative to familiar territory.
At the end of the day, the story had an ending — and the implication behind it is that there’s rather little evidence supporting Adnan’s guilt, after all these years and all the trouble he’s been through. His long incarceration for Lee’s murder may well be a miscarriage of justice, and the podcast successfully — if not universally — swung public support back in his direction.
“Serial” successfully revealed the inescapable humanness of criminal prosecution — as well as the startling insufficiency of “mere” factual evidence. Facts, as we’ve come to learn, can say almost anything, and point in any direction if they’re wielded by the right people. But doubt? Reasonable doubt? That’s something powerful indeed — and it’s going to rule over Adnan’s life for many years to come. A star witness in the case is, even now, uncertain that Adnan killed Lee.
Maybe Adnan’s story is neither groundbreaking nor particularly unique — and maybe he would’ve gotten his appeal without the show’s unexpected success. On that front, suspicion is all we have. And sometimes, as we’ve learned, suspicion is all you need.
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