Over at our private family page on Facebook, we have been having a lively discussion about Serial, the This American Life podcast that investigates the 1999 murder of Baltimore County high school senior Hae Min Lee. Lee’s former boyfriend Adnan Syed is currently serving a life sentence for her murder. The 12-episode podcast investigates allegations of his innocence.
My brother-in-law George and I are on opposite sides of the debate. I am convinced of Syed’s guilt – at least as convinced as you can be after listening to a superficial summary of the evidence by a chatty, self-absorbed non-lawyer. Leading the argument on the other side is George. “My gut says he’s guilty,” says George, “but I am dumbfounded that he was found guilty based on the flimsy evidence.”
George is a true Renaissance man, as good with the arts and social sciences as he is with hard science. At the same time, his experience with our criminal justice system is — as far as I can tell — limited to having received a ticket for parking in a cross-walk thirty years ago and then writing a song about it. Now compare George’s experience with my qualifications. After all, although I have never done a murder trial, I have devoted my entire legal career to defending the accused. That is, of course, if you believe the hyperbole on my website.
So whose argument do you think carried the day? First there is my niece Geneva: “I agree with Uncle George,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like enough! There isn’t a SINGLE other person besides Jay!!” Then one of my sisters jumps in: “I find myself agreeing with George on all counts.”
And this isn’t even the sister who is married to George.
So where do I begin? First, I am still puzzling over one of Syed’s statements to narrator Sarah Koenig. When asked why he would have considered pleading to a crime he didn’t commit had such an offer ever been extended to him, Syed responds that, during the 15 years he has been spent incarcerated, he has not met many people who have beaten a first degree murder charge. The absurdity of this statement goes unremarked upon by the adoring Koenig. Oh really? Do you think that might be because, generally speaking, people who have beaten criminal charges are not sitting around in prison?
Second, there is the producers’ misguided decision to devote an entire episode to the views of the Innocence Project at UVA. Although Koenig takes this as a sign of encouragement, I don’t know how you can be surprised that the head of the Innocence Project, a woman who has spent the previous 26 years seeking to have people exonerated of crimes for which they were convicted, would look at the evidence and arrive at the conclusion of innocence. I suspect that if Koenig had brought the same facts to the local prosecutors office to get their feedback she would have come back with the opposite conclusion. Can you say “organizational bias”?
Finally, there is Koenig herself. It is not just that, in trying to be so hip, she says things like “what went down that day” when “what happened” would work much better. It is also that, putting herself front and center in the story, she is so clearly smitten with Syed that all objectivity flies out the window. In the very first episode, she describes him as tall and “barrel-chested” with large, brown eyes, like a calf. And she can hardly disguise the giddiness in her voice every time she speaks with him on the phone. She subsequently ties herself up in knots trying to find any evidence of his innocence. A butt dial? Really?
In the final episode, in a rare moment of self-awareness, Koenig notes that this case came to her, not the other way around. Did my colleagues and I, she asks, just spend a year of our lives investigating a run-on-the-mill murder case? Because that would be a real bummer, wouldn’t it?
The tale of an innocent man sitting behind bars makes a far more compelling story, and that is clearly what Koenig and her producers were hoping for. But I am not convinced. Although, as it turns out, I cannot speak any for any of my family members, let me put it this way: I myself am not losing any sleep over this. Nor am I willing to draw any deeper conclusions from this case about the sad state of our criminal justice system. The government’s case was not perfect. Nor were the prosecutors who presented it. But a jury heard the evidence over the 10 to 12 week trial. They assessed the credibility of the government’s major witness and decided that they believed him. They then took just a couple of hours to convict him. It sounds to me as though an imperfect system run by imperfect people came to the right conclusion.