Baffler Note No. 97
My New Fetish

In Defense of 'Serial', a Brilliant Podcast about the Epistemology of Investigation

 
If you haven't been following 'Serial', the podast from Chicago Public Radio, you should. It's like nothing you've ever heard before. Go to the podcast website and listen to the episodes in order. 'Serial' patiently re-investigates a 15-year-old American murder case:
 
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month 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 spend the rest of his 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.
 
'Serial' uses the unique openness of the American criminal justice system: the reporter, Sarah Koenig, plays audio recordings of the actual trials of Syed (the first ended in a mistrial), interviews jury members, and plays for us long excerpts of her conversations with Syed from the Maryland Correctional Center. She re-interviews witnesses at the original trial, and many who didn't testify. She visit the places where things important to the case happened. Experts on everything from cellphone tower tracing to attorney competence to police investigations to psychopath and personality disorders weigh in on both the original evidence and what Koenig's team have uncovered since the trial. She discovers some new evidence that seems to point away from Syed's guilt, and other new evidence that is either ambiguous or, as we lawyers say, 'unhelpful' to Syed. And then she speaks directly to Syed on the telephone and asks for his comments on what she's found. Syed is not your average convicted murderer -- he's intelligent, articulate, and a model prisoner, and knows precisely when to parry and when to thrust in response to accusations.
 
The podcast has sparked huge interest, with over a million people listening, and partisan commentary raging all over the Internets. The last episode broadcasts today and is already available for download, but I haven't heard it yet. The comedy sketch above satirizes one aspect of 'Serial' -- its open-endedness. Many want the podcast to end with everything tied into a neat little bow: Syed is innocent, and I found the magic bullet that proves it! Syed is guilty and has been lying all along, and I uncovered the magic bullet that proves it! To these people, the podcast seems to meander back and forth between trying to convince listeners Syed is innocent and sadly confirming the charming young sociopath's guilt.
 
This attitude slights 'Serial's' genuine achievement, which is precisely its openness, its effort to bring the reader along on a journey to genuine understanding. Journalists -- especially German ones -- are prone to be condescending crusaders, spoon-feeding their readers one-sided narratives intended to hammer home Approved Opinions™ about everything from the death penalty to fracking to immigration to Greek finances. To make sure nothing complicates the lesson, these journalists swallow the most outlandish tales of victimization, ignore glaring contradictions, and leave contrary viewpoints and empirical verification outside in the cold. Not all of them, to be sure -- there are lots of German journos doing solid, thoughtful work. And the problem ain't just Germany. Why, just last month a major American magazine published a made-up-story of gang rape based on a teenager's romantic catfishing ploy without doing even the simplest verification.
 
Koenig treats her listeners like adults, in fact almost like accomplices in the investigation. And on the way, she illustrates a number of points that ordinary people don't understand about criminal investigations (full disclosure: I was a criminal defense lawyer in a previous life):
  • Eyewitnesses who saw the same incident often -- in fact usually -- describe it in inconsistent ways, which makes eyewitness testimony one of the leading causes of false convictions.
  • Many criminal cases are based on the testimony of acomplices who are just as guilty, if not even more guilty, than the defendant they testify against.
  • Men and women who are guilty of crimes can adamantly and convincingly protest their innocence. Many can even do so sincerely, because they have convinced themselves they are innocent.
  • Since most normal humans are lucky enough never to have never encountered a sociopathic liar willing to recite detailed, convincing lies to another person, they are often taken in by these people. (I'm looking at you, European women who marry American death-row inmates).
  • The way in which a person reacts to news of a loved one's death is so individual and unpredictable that it's meaningless as a clue to guilt or innocence.
  • If you hire a private criminal defense lawyer in the U.S., there is no effective real-time regulation of that person's fee policies or performance. If they make an error that leads to you being convicted, you can only argue about that after the fact in expensive appeals, and you face a forbidding standard in proving your case.
  • Notorious criminal cases attract unstable people who will do everything from claiming responsibility for horrific murders to fabricating evidence for or against the accused.
  • If you investigate any incident long enough, you will inevitably come across spectacularly improbable 'coincidences', such as the fact that the man who discovered Lee's body happened to be a notorious streaker who once intentionally exposed himself naked in public to a female police officer in uniform. (After he waggled his dong at her he ran away. She found his clothes and confiscated them).

During her patient re-investigation of Lee's death, Koenig encounters almost all of these vagaries of investigation. She shows how the fabric of reality attending the actual events starts dissolving immediately, and decomposes further with every passing day until the original pattern is irretrievably lost -- or distorted by bias, error, or selective memory. Koenig can't wrap the events up in a neat little bundle because this isn't fiction, there is no bundle, there is no happy ending. It is to her credit that she chose a case marked by ambiguity, and that she resisted the urge to channel the facts she found into a pat, tidy, misleading narrative. By doing so, she conveys profound truths about memory, bias, violence, and justice. 'Serial', if you ask me is journalism at its finest.

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