Serial (Again)

[Content Note: Violence; death; racism; issues of consent and ethics.]

When I first posted about Serial earlier this week, I was halfway through the series. Yesterday was the podcast's concluding episode, and I've now listened to the whole thing. And hoo boy, I have thoughts.

My primary thought is this: I don't think there was enough evidence to convict Adnan Syed of murdering Hae Min Lee. But I also don't think that necessarily has anything to do with his actual guilt or innocence.

If Serial had been primarily concerned with the facts of the case and the trial—and it seems like maybe it started out that way, with that intent—I might have very different thoughts about it in the end.

But Serial was about much more than that, and so disproportionately about investigating the veracity of individual people's feelings about Adnan Syed. Does he seem like a guy who could do this thing?

Which is so dangerous.

And, throughout the series, the only person who really pushes back on that idea, the idea that seeming like a good guy and being a murderer are necessarily mutually exclusive things, is the man who was convicted of the murder. Syed tells Sarah Koenig, very straightforwardly, that she doesn't know him just because they talked on the phone. He tells her that he doesn't even want to hear that he seems like a good guy ever again; that he'd rather hear someone say he's an asshole but they think he's innocent because his case was dodgy.

Everyone else seems to think it's a pretty reasonable thing, to explore whether we think someone is capable of murdering someone else based on how nice they seem to us.

Anyway, the series ends with ambiguity. Or so it would seem, in that there are no definitive answers. But Koenig says she doesn't think Syed killed Hae Min Lee. And that's not really ambiguity, not really, because many of the people listening to the show, by its end, just wanted Koenig to tell them something on which to hang their hats, one way or another. And that was it.

But how did Jay know about the location of Hae Min Lee's car? We still don't know.

And how was Syed convicted on such thin evidence? Well, we still don't know that, either—except for how we kind of do.

One of the episodes I had not yet heard when I wrote about Serial previously is the episode in which Koenig addresses whether racism and/or Islamophobia played a part in Syed's conviction. She talks to his mother, who says it did. She plays recordings from Syed's bail hearing, which clearly indicates it did. She reads excerpts from a police consultant on Islamic culture and violence, which makes obvious that it did. She recounts parts of the trial, and talks to jurors, which reveals that it did, yes it did, yes racism and/or Islamophobia played a part in Syed's conviction.

And then Koenig says, inexplicably, that she's unconvinced that racism played a role in Syed being convicted of a crime for which there was virtually no verifiable evidence, just the testimony of an accomplice whose attorney was secured by the prosecution and who got no jail time in exchange for testifying.

Here, again, I want to stress that I am not arguing that Syed is not guilty. I am only saying that I don't think he was fairly convicted.

(One of the best things to come out of Serial, for me, was hearing the woman from the Innocence Project, whose name I don't recall, saying that just because prosecutors can prosecute a case against someone and potentially secure a conviction with thin evidence doesn't mean they should.)

Anyway. I had a real problem with Koenig dismissing the possibility (the certainty) of racism out of hand. It was a crucial analysis that was just sort of waved away.

Which is no small thing, to suggest that we can disconcern ourselves with racism during this serious inquiry about justice.

Especially at this moment in our nation.

Koenig, a white women, says, incredibly, that she doesn't see evidence that the police or prosecutors were consciously influenced by or practiced racism, despite the fact that the police paid money to a consultant to develop a theory centered around honor killing and the prosecution used that theory as the backbone of its case: Hae Min Lee jilted Adnan Syed, after he risked his conservative Muslim family's approval to be with her, and he was so enraged by the ding to his honor that he killed her.

That entire case is predicated on Syed's Pakistani heritage and Muslim religion, even though he was born and raised in the United States and wasn't a devout Muslim at the time.

To reject a thorough analysis of all of these dynamics in favor of asking, in various ways, again and again, if murdering someone can be reconciled with the sort of guy Adnan Syed seems to be, is just mind-boggling. And irresponsible.

No one needs to be assured, at this moment, that we can ignore issues of race in the pursuit of justice.

(I also recommend this piece by Priya R. Chandrasekaran, who details additional issues of race with which Serial failed to meaningfully engage.)

So. At the end of it all, I am basically the human embodiment of a scrunchy-face emogi. I would like to say that I hope Serial gets Adnan Syed a new trial, but I don't even know if a new trial would look any more like justice than the first one did, now because of the influence of Serial.

The lingering question I have is: What if he really did do it, and the Serial effect secures his freedom?

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