If you haven't been listening to Serial you've surely been hearing about it, so I won't summarize the whole story other than to say that there are three critical characters here. There's Hae Min Lee, who was brutally strangled 15 years ago, Adnan, her ex-boyfriend who's currently in jail for life for her murder, and Jay, their mutual friend who claims Adnan admitted to killing Hae and showed him her body. One of three things is happening—Adnan's lying, Jay's lying, or they both are.
It's a shocking story and the podcast itself is addictive, unsurprisingly. The detective in all of us is attracted to mysteries like this—situations where no one has a motive, no one has a great alibi, and no one's story quite adds up.
Serial makes me feel like Nancy Drew, like the piece of the puzzle that is missing from the narrative is within grasp, and I may be the person to find it. Sarah Koenig, the investigator and the narrator, perpetuates this illusion well. She admits her confusion and frustration and speaks frankly about the walls she hits in her investigation, in that solemn NPR monotone that well-meaning liberals like myself have come to associate with quality reporting. And despite Koenig's repeated claim that the investigation isn't done, the series unfolds with a precise artistry that ensures that Koenig comes off as thorough and fair. Fairness is Koenig's ultimate goal, and off the air she hammers this point. "The only thing I really, really worry about is: Am I being fair at every step of the way?" she said to Rolling Stone and, in some variation, to a number of other news outlets over the past few weeks.
I get this. After all, the story only works if we trust her to tell it correctly. This is part of its hook—the unbiased, thorough journalist foraging for the truth.
It's reliable and honorable. It's also bullshit.
Don't get me wrong—I think Serial is great storytelling. I just think it's shoddy reporting.
Koenig's search for the truth has led her to sift through the minutiae to discover some unknown discrepancy. She's thorough about the day of the murder—how many steps from the path to the hidden body in the park? How many minutes from school to Best Buy? She seeks out classmates and track coaches and diaries and Asia McClain's long-lost boyfriend's friend who's not only forgotten the day in question but has completely forgotten Asia ("Asia McClain. Is that a person or a book?"). She possesses a dogged preoccupation with what happened the day Hae was killed.
But there are critical questions Koenig's not asking, and we need to talk about those. She's focused almost entirely on the details of the crime, peripherally sketched out some details on the criminal, but failed miserably to examine the failures of the process.
This is where her reliability starts to unravel. You can't be fair without context.
I have no idea who lied fifteen years ago, and I doubt we'll ever find out. Lies have a way of burrowing into the brain and reshaping and reforming into truth after awhile. Whatever Adnan and Jay believed then could have changed by now.
What does seem clear to me, though, is that there was rampant and serious misconduct by Baltimore law enforcement. It seems impossible that, as a defendant, Adnan got within the realm of a fair shake here. And even if law enforcement's shady behavior didn't rise to illegal misconduct, there's a reasonable possibility that it could have had a tangible effect on the outcome. The police ignoring Jay's inability to stick to his story, the disappearance at trial of an entire portion of his story, the prosecutor quickly hushing one of their primary witnesses before she says something that stands in direct opposition with the theory they're presenting—each of these, handled differently, could have imparted much more reasonable doubt into the minds of the jurors.
This behavior is startling but not unusual—this is how the criminal justice process works. More often than not the things that explain the various players' motivations happen after the crime. They happen once the police get involved, threaten sentences, make deals, elicit confessions. It happens when prosecutors cover up part of the story and defense lawyers throw cases and a man involved in a murder gets to walk if he talks.
A journalist looking into a murder mystery should know this. A journalist who values fairness should definitely know this. But Koenig hasn't done her homework. "They must have had enough evidence to convict or else they wouldn't have convicted him," she asserts multiple episodes in, demonstrating a breathtaking idealism that does not comport at all with reality. It's an ignorance bordering on irresponsibility. It's totally baffling that she can look at how things played out in questioning and in trial and still conclude that, "from what [she] can tell, there's not gross negligence or malfeasance or something on the part of the detectives or the State Attorney's office. Everyone seems to be doing their job responsibly."
How law enforcement and prosecutors wield their vast and often unregulated power is not a sexy story. Finding out who committed a heinous murder is way more enticing and perhaps more palatable. So Koenig focuses pretty squarely on the latter. That's okay, I guess—this is her story, after all—but she can't call it fair. How can you tell a story about a convicted criminal without talking about the system that convicted him?
You can't tell us Adnan's story without talking about what it means to be a defendant in a courtroom in 1999, as America was putting the finishing touches on its most incarceratory decade yet. Over 350 new state prisons built in one single decade, each quickly filled to capacity. This is when incarceration was accelerating disconcertingly fast but before any of us were talking about it.
And Baltimore at that time. Jesus. Grim and poor and punitive. More than half of young black men in the city were in the criminal justice system—if they weren't incarcerated they were on probation or parole.
That "more than half" thing is incomprehensible. And it matters here. It matters because Koenig doesn't seem to know it. When, in episode 7, Deirdre says, "I'm a little concerned about racial profiling here, you know?" Koenig replies with surprise, "Oh really?"
Even apart from race, this statistic matters because of sheer numbers. That's a remarkably high body count that Baltimore was moving through the assembly line. It's even crazier because of what the prosecutor's office looked like in 1999.
Koenig doesn't talk about Baltimore. But Baltimore matters.
Just a few days before the murder, Baltimore's head prosecutor had to publicly apologize after two men accused of murder were released when the city accidentally failed to try their cases. In this apology she described her office as "totally overwhelmed," asked for a budget increase of $8 million—over 50%—or else she wouldn't be able to do her job properly, and was rejected by the Mayor.
This happens again, by the way. It happens a few times—serious violent criminals getting let out because the prosecutor's office was too overwhelmed to process cases in a reasonable time. People are all over the Baltimore Sun calling the office incompetent, expressing disgust.
Fast-forward a few months to early March, a few days after the police wake Adnan up in the middle of the night and take him to the station. In trying to stem a cavernous deficit the city came for police officer's overtime hours, hours often spent in court over charges they'd issued. These charges usually didn't hold any weight—60% percent were dismissed—and it was wasted time of the cops and the court. So the city changed the whole process, instead giving the struggling State Attorney's office the role of deciding the validity of police-issued charges, burdening the prosecutors with more work but granting them more power.
Meanwhile there were still thousands of cases to be handled and defendants in jail awaiting trial.
And Baltimore's prosecutors, stretched impossibly thin, still managed to convict or plea out an astronomical number of young black men in the city. Including Jay, who pled out and got a few years probation.
Think about this. In early 1999, the prosecutor's office was a public relations nightmare. They had no time, no money, but more charging power than ever. Plus they must have had tactics—after all, they were putting a shocking amount of people away while vastly under-resourced.
And then two months after a girl disappeared, someone is pointing to the boyfriend. That's open and shut, quick and clean. I don't think it's crazy to consider the fact that the police were overlooking Jay's six remixes to his own story to get a win and get it off their desk.
It's unclear how much of the city politics affected this case, or how much it matters. But it tells us one thing. The story is a lot bigger than eight hours. It's bigger than the act. And it's careless to not focus heavily on the bigger picture.
The truth comes down to one question—who's lying? And everyone—Koenig, acquaintances, even Adnan himself—comes back to the same question. Why would Jay lie about this?
I don't know the answer. But if Koenig wants to know if Jay is lying and why—if she wants to know how Adnan got either sold out or was framed—she's not going to find the answer in a stale analysis of the day's details. She's going to find it in the police interrogation room or in a private meeting with the prosecutor. That is where Jay began telling his narrative, where his story solidified and took form, law enforcement looking away from the discrepancies because they could. That's where Jay, either justly or unjustly, shook hands with law enforcement and went home, never to spend a single day in prison. Those are the sterile rooms with all the evidence.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]