Podcast Review: Serial – Season One (2014)

“This is a Global Tel-Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed; an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Facility.” So begins every episode of this series of 12 podcasts from Chicago radio station WBEZ. Hosted by award-winning radio journalist Sarah Koenig, each episode of Serial re-investigates a different aspect of Syed’s 2000 conviction for the murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Over the course of a year, Koenig spoke for over 40 hours to Syed as well as re-investigating the case from every conceivable angle in what evolves into a fascinating conversation about the criminal justice system. Though the jury found Syed guilty, and indeed he continues to serve his sentence in Maryland, he maintains his innocence and through listening to the evidence as presented by Koenig across the series, it appears Syed without doubt has “reasonable doubt” in his favour.

Hae Min Lee’s body was found in a nearby park, strangled and buried in a shallow grave. With little physical evidence of the perpetrator, the police and the prosecution relied upon two main pieces of evidence against Adnan Syed. The first was the testimony of a school acquaintance of both Syed and Lee, named Jay. Jay testifies Syed killed Lee out of revenge from their break up, threatening it then admitting to it to Jay after the act, followed by Syed showing Jay the body in the boot of his car before Jay helped him bury Lee. Jay gives police the car, missing until this point, which was used to ferry Lee’s body to the burial spot and secures a deal from police to keep himself out of prison if he testifies against Syed. The second piece of evidence is mobile phone records that support Jay’s timeline of events. However, these phone records are not necessarily as cut and dry as they first appear and Jay’s story shifts and alters in the details from one time to the next, even if his overall story remains much the same throughout: Syed killed Lee (Alan Dershowitz, The Guardian, 1st Jan. 2015).

So, almost 15 years into Syed’s sentence, Koenig and her team get a hold of some of the basics of his conviction and immediately start to see the incredible weaknesses of the case against him. Syed’s second worst enemy, after Jay’s testimony, is his own lack of specific memory of that day at the end of 1999 when he is said to have killed Lee. Several weeks passed from when Lee was murdered until the police questioned Syed and he says he remembers nothing out of the ordinary about that day. Therefore, whereas Jay has offered the prosecution a number of specifics which led to the ultimate conviction of Syed, he himself continues to remember little about the day and what he does remember is mainly based on what he “usually” or “must have” done on such a regular day.

Serial is an investigative documentary podcast series. Like any documentary, it desperately tries to stay on the side of objectivity over subjectivity. Facts are laid out for and against Adnan Syed, for and against Jay’s story and the prosecution’s evidence, for the way the case was handled by the judicial system at the time, the police, the jury and the judge, and Syed’s lawyer. Koenig builds a relationship with Syed during their phone calls across the series. Nothing intimate or inappropriate but she fully admits to finding him charming and polite and reasonable but then in the same breath questions whether she can trust her own judgment of character and asks whether he could still really be a killer behind whatever demeanour he might portray.

Whilst it is a completely human characteristic to build this kind of relationship with the subject of the documentary, it is also something which is arguably one of Serial’s few shortcomings. In an attempt to develop backgrounds for the characters surrounding the story, there are several episodes which describe the physical appearances or tastes and distastes of individuals involved: Lee liked a particular football team or Jay has a certain presence in a room. These undoubtedly help towards the painting of the overall world of the story but when the subject is a real one and one which holds such significance on the lives of the individuals it talks about, one cannot help but feel that the podcast is straying into the territory of allowing us to judge these people based on things other than the facts of the case and was this ultimately not one of the mistakes in the way the case was handled in 2000? That is, it should not be up to the accused to prove he is innocent but up to the courts to decide “beyond reasonable doubt” that he is guilty and that has not been done (Jeff Schuessler,, Podcast 81, 2014).

That being the one major critique of this series, and with Koenig and her team going to great lengths to show both sides, I hope this does not stop you from taking note of Serial and checking out the podcast for yourself. It is an exceptionally entertaining experience which has little flaws. The production of each episode is great with varying sound bites, interviews, recordings from court and recordings from police interviews; it feels very intimate with the case but without ever feeling too intrusive upon the lives of these people. Koenig carries us through the case and the facts which are being highlighted each week before giving her own interpretation and occasionally finding herself as a character of sorts within the story itself. Episodes are sometimes dense with information but it is never overwhelming and this is a masterful effort for a year of investigative journalism to condense it into 12 episodes. Whilst an overturn of Syed’s conviction or even a re-trial in the midst of such a hugely popular podcast, despite the ineptitude of the case, is unlikely (Alan Dershowitz, The Guardian, 1st Jan. 2015), this should take nothing away from the efforts of Koenig and company who have with Serial created, at the very least, a thoroughly immersive and entertaining piece of journalism which should be the start of a new style of episodic podcasting.

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