If the case of Serial’s Adnan Syed shows the justice system cuts corners, then we should all be worried, writes Dotty Winters. Warning: SLIGHT spoiler alert.
Last Friday, Judge Martin P Welch in Maryland, USA, granted a motion to reopen proceedings on the conviction of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty of murder in 1999. This will allow Syed’s lawyers to submit evidence that was excluded from his initial proceedings.
This judgement, at this stage in the case (following a previous denial of post-conviction relief) is rare – it only happens in an estimated 1.2 per cent of cases – but not so rare that it alone explains the worldwide news coverage this decision has received. Adnan Syed’s story was the focus of the Serial podcast, bringing this story to the attention of millions of people across the globe.
Last year the Serial podcast became the fastest podcast ever to reach 5m downloads, with listeners now in the tens of millions (and rising). With a second series of this runaway success due out imminently, it’s a good time to examine the impact that this real-life story has had on some real lives.
The utterly gripping 12-part series explored the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a student in Baltimore, and the subsequent trial and life-plus-30-years conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.
Serial was an unashamedly narrative-led exploration of the state’s prosecution case, additional information gathered since, interviews with people involved (including Syed himself) and testing of some of the evidence which was presented, as well as bits which weren’t. It’s hard to write about without some slight spoilers, so if you haven’t listened yet, go do that before reading further.
Serial didn’t specifically focus on whether Syed was guilty or not, instead looking at whether the evidence, as presented, was safe enough to justify the conviction. Alternative suspects and theories were presented. The Serial team also attempted to test some of the key components of the prosecution case (which hinged on some very specific timings); every twist and turn of the story seemed to introduce further reasonable doubt.
The storytelling is superb but made people uncomfortable – this dramatic story is about real people, a real family grieving the loss of a much-loved daughter (Lee’s story is largely lost in Serial, although has been examined in more detail elsewhere), a real man, who has so far been incarcerated for 15 years and real witnesses who suddenly found their testimony being tested and examined in a very public setting.
As the podcast progressed and news spread, lawyers, experts and laypeople began blogging about it and discussing it online, turning up new evidence and proposing new theories. People who had been involved in the original trials (there was an initial mistrial prior to the case in which Syed was convicted) came forward to challenge statements that had been made.
“High-profile and emotive cases have always run the risk of people who do not respect the judicial process taking matters into their own hands. In an age where criminal trials are now televised in some countries and are reported on in most, why is a podcast any more worrying?”
The discovery that a potential alibi witness has been excluded from evidence for reasons which didn’t stand up to scrutiny has now led to an appeal for post-conviction relief being reopened – and a genuine possibility of Adnan Syed being released (although in this scenario he wouldn’t be cleared, just released). While the series presents a number of possible alternative suspects (and a few more have emerged since it was broadcast) the series doesn’t present a smoking gun, or an open-and-shut case against anyone.
It’s tempting to listen to Serial as if it were a whodunnit, but this case is much more about questions that face all of us: if we were falsely accused of a crime, how could we prove we didn’t do it? Would we remember enough about just-an-ordinary-day, weeks earlier, to build a case that accounted for our movements and actions enough to rule ourselves out?
Since the completion of Serial season one, the blogosphere and podosphere have remained involved. A number of spin-off podcasts have been launched, most notably UnDisclosed, started by Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer who is a family friend of Syed’s and who initially brought the case to the Serial team. She has teamed up with two other legal experts who were blogging about the case to explore evidence that wasn’t included in the Serial narrative.
Recent legal developments in the case have opened the possibility that new evidence may now be presented at Syed’s appeal – some of which, if proven credible in that hearing, could in theory lead to a full exoneration.
This evidence would also cast suspicion on the approach taken in the police investigation, the role which racism may have played, the competence of the defence team and some of the actions of the prosecution – any ruling based on this would have implications for other cases in the state tried in the same period.
Other spin-off podcasts (for example Serial Dynasty) have used the platform of this case to crowd-source information and verification of evidence, most notably to demonstrate that a key alibi for someone else involved in the case is likely to have been forged.
The internet can be a dark and unregulated fiefdom, feelings on this case have run high, and some of the amateur detectives who have followed the case have proven not to be up to the job: unethical acts (including releasing contact details of people who were witnesses in the case) have led to undue pressure on real people who deserve to be left to go about their business, and unproven rumours have become part of the accepted internet narrative of what happened in 1999.
It is easy to see why this should make us uncomfortable: most right-thinking people are uneasy about the concept of trial by internet forum.
I think it is important to separate the public scrutiny of due process from the acts of vigilantes.
High-profile and emotive cases have always run the risk of people who do not respect the judicial process taking matters into their own hands. In an age where criminal trials are now televised in some countries and are reported on in most, why is a podcast any more worrying?
In many ways these podcasts have acted as little more than an online version of a Crimewatch appeal, a police reconstruction, or a roadside sign calling for witnesses. Ultimately, to have impact, any new evidence or witnesses will have to face the full scrutiny of a court.
For me, the significance of this approach has been the level of reach and interest. If this conviction is unsafe, if key evidence and witnesses were discounted, if information which should have been declared wasn’t and if other suspects were not fully investigated, then we should all be concerned.
If it were possible that someone has been jailed for 15 years, despite his accusers not meeting the requirement of proving his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, then something is broken and we share an interest and responsibility to see it fixed.
This isn’t a case about individual “baddies”; rather it is about the possibility of serious failures in the legal and police systems on which we rely. The scrutiny that this case is receiving and the in-depth crowdsourcing of evidence for an appeal must leave even the most diligent of those involved in the original investigation and cases questioning whether they really did do everything by the book. I wonder if there are prosecutors, detectives or lawyers currently praying that none of their cases are the focus of Serial’s second season.
It may be uncomfortable to explore the possibility that the justice system sometimes cuts corners but if I am ever falsely accused I hope that everyone involved does their jobs as though the whole internet is watching.
About Hae Min Lee (1980–1999)
• Senior at Woodlawn High School, where she was a popular, opinionated and sociable pupil
• Lived with her mother and brother and regularly collected her younger cousin from day care after school
• Academically talented and an accomplished athlete (field hockey and lacrosse)
• Wrestling coach for junior boys’ team
• Lee was an avid diary writer, detailing her busy, active life and her teenage romances.
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.