Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, January 2, 2015

Can we talk about "Serial?"

Like many people across America, I was totally captivated by the podcast "Serial," which, if you haven't yet been accosted by a raving fan, is about a 1999 murder and hinges on whether you believe one of the two former teenagers at the heart of the case: Adnan, in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and Jay, whose (frequently changing) testimony put Adnan there.

One of the most compelling elements of the show is the extent to which its host, "This American Life" vet Sarah Koenig, very transparently wears her biases on her sleeve. She doesn't believe, or doesn't want to believe, that Adnan did it. He's charming, she likes him, and she doesn't seem to be able to fully bring herself to think he committed the crime. But she's up front about those feelings, and her journey in the show is a huge part of what makes it so compelling.

It's been fascinating to discuss this show with friends and coworkers, because to a large degree it's almost a Rorschach Test for the way you view crime, criminals, heck, even life and the truth. You learn a lot about people just by hearing their opinions and what they experienced in the past that contributes to their views.

For instance, I'm heavily influenced by a murder that took place in my hometown, where I knew both the murderers and the victim, and it doesn't surprise me at all, as it seems to surprise Koenig, that it's possible someone could be both charming and a murderer. I also to this day remember so many details of finding out about that murder in my hometown, which happened more than fifteen years ago, that I find it hard to believe that Adnan wouldn't be able to remember what happened on the day the police asked him about his missing ex-girlfriend. It wasn't just some random day.

Many people have written of the biases of the show, but one element of bias that I haven't seen fully addressed is the bias of the good story.

It's not a great story if we found out the guy who is behind bars for committing a crime is the one who committed the crime. If Koenig had discovered conclusive proof around Episode 2 that Adnan committed the crime, there wouldn't have really been a show, and certainly not the most popular podcast of all time. Sure, Koenig likes Adnan and that may have influenced her, but to me what really seemed to drive her was a sense on her part, even a hope, that there was more to the story. Consciously or unconsciously, in the absence of proving Adnan's innocence outright, she had every incentive to leave as many threads dangling as possible.

So while Koenig dove deep into possibly exculpatory inconsistencies in Jay's various testimonies (which, to be fair, were wildly inconsistent) and into things like whether there really was a pay phone at a Best Buy, other things that in Koenig's parlance were "bad for Adnan," like the letter from Hae that told him to back off and which had the words "I will kill" scrawled on it, and the "Mr. B." who pled the fifth at the grand jury, received scant attention. When she did dive deep into "bad for Adnan" threads they felt oddly tangential to the heart of the story, like whether Adnan absconded with mosque funds.

The facts as they have been presented certainly cast doubt on whether Adnan was fairly convicted, and if anything is gained from the popularity of the show, I hope a sober reexamination will take place. But I also lack confidence that the "bad for Adnan" threads were pursued, or treated, with equal vigor.

That's partly why I was equal parts compelled and unnerved when listening to "Serial," and extremely uncomfortable when reading Jay's recent interviews with The Intercept and wondering what Hae's family must think. These are real lives being disrupted and very painful memories being resurrected for a murky purpose. Is this entertainment? Journalism? An uncomfortable mixture?

And sure, let's get this mandatory part out of the way. Based on everything I have heard, I lean toward thinking Adnan committed the crime though am doubtful I would have voted to convict if I were on the jury. But it makes me uncomfortable to even type those words. Who am I to even have an opinion about all of this?

Have you listened to the show? What do you think?


abc said...

OMG, I've been hoping you'd post about Seria!. I was/am obsessed, as well. Though probably not as obsessed as some. I only sort of skim the reddit comments.

I actually lean towards Adnan being innocent. I wouldn't be totally dumbfounded if he were actually guilty, but I'd be surprised. At least based on evidence, stories, accounts of his personality, etc. I don't think the "back off" stuff and the "I'm going to kill" mean anything at all. In a teenager's world, lots of drama happens. But this kind of crime--it was super intense. Strangling someone. I think if he premeditated it he would have picked a different way. And strangling--even in the heat of the moment--is something that requires a lot of anger and passion and rage. I'm guessing, of course. This kind of rage would, I believe, have to have been glimpsed before. Or a lot would have to be at stake. It didn't seem like Adnan had anything at stake. Girlfriends killed by ex-boyfriends are usually girls who have been abused by the boyfriend before. It just doesn't add up to me psychologically.

I also think accounts of Adnan's personality go beyond "charming". Certainly a sociopath can be charming. Ted Bundy was charming. But the real nitty gritty of his character is how he treated others in the day to day. His family, his friends, strangers--and he certainly seemed like a good guy. Yes, despite the stealing from the Mosque. Again, when I was 10/11/12/13 plenty of my "good" peers stole. It was thrilling. Kids do stupid, stupid stuff.

Jay, however--and I'm not categorically saying he was the murderer, but I do think he at least had to be involved more than he admits--has shown a different character. His consistent lies. Heresay from friends about his lying. His stories don't add up.

Argh. I'll end. Except to say the podcast was incredible storytelling. Sarah Koenig rules!

Nathan Bransford said...

Well, I feel like the letter itself contradicts Koenig's and Adnan's narrative that it was a NBD breakup and everything was fine. In Hae's own words it sounds like it wasn't fine. That doesn't itself make Adnan a murderer, but I don't think it deserved the flippancy that Koenig treated it with.

Backfence said...

Ted Bundy was the first thing that came to my mind also when hearing Adnan described as charming. He was clearly a liar and a hypocrite. He misled his family and, though he claimed his religiion is important to him, he seemed to have no scruples about violating its tenets on numerous occasions.

Still, I see more red flags in connection with Jay's words and actions than with Adnan's. All I know for sure is I would NOT have wanted to be on that jury! Adnan's behavior was suspicious, yes; but there was enough reasonable doubt, IMO, to acquit.

abc said...

Ok, I feel I have to say more. So, I hear you. That this is entertainment and that's a bit uncomfortable, but it is also journalism and journalism is part of the large machine that is entertainment. Serial is investigative journalism. We watch pieces on 60 minutes, we watch countless shows about real murders (48 hours, etc.), we read pages of thoughtful, well-researched pieces in Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly and the Atlantic or the Economist.

I guess I don't think it is fair to say you or me or Joe the Plumber shouldn't have an opinion. Not that you were exactly saying that. But you seem to have some uncertainty about having one.

I also think the meat of this story isn't Adnan's innocence or guilt (though that certainly is an important element and a very human thing to consider) but just how crazy the case is, how muddled. That he was convicted--with no hard evidence. With just this one guy saying he did it. This one unreliable witness! So I don't agree that Keonig was being less hard on Adnan. I felt that she very fairly gave credence to his possible guilt. Sure, she was casual about the note (I think I would be too, actually. I swear I have seen too many of these kinds of notes to give them much concern). The Mr. B. thing maybe deserved some more. But I still think she was very, very fair to Jay and to Adnan.

And that word charming. Did she say "charming"? Certainly it is a word often given to sociopathic types. But he was also described as kind and thoughtful and friendly and giving. People who are sociopaths show their cards some way somehow at some time. Nothing before or since shows this potential. Not even the stealing (in my opinion--based on my own experiences and professional psychological "expertise").

If Adnan is guilty I don't think it was because he is a sociopath. Or because of his religion. It would be due to hurt and humiliation built up and exploding. But again, I don't see that. Not based on what we've been given of his character.

Anyway, of course it is terrible that a young woman was murdered. But a man who may be wrongfully convicted is spending a lifetime in prison. And he had a really crappy legal defense. And he shouldn't--at the very, very least--have been convicted based on the case against him.

And just like so many famous cases that have been given the spotlight, the core of them involves terrible things happening to people. The Thin Blue Line is an exceptional documentary about a man falsely accused and convicted of murder. There was still a murder. It is an entertaining film.

Nathan, you are a good person and it is good that you have these concerns. But I still think Serial and Keonig didn't do anything wrong. I think they did tell a story. A true story. But they reported on something that happened and that had meaning and still has meaning and repercussions and I think it is absolutely cool that we the people of the world can learn about it and think about it and discuss it and have and share our opinions.

Clearly, also, I am passionate about this. And have to get more exciting things to do on a Friday night. Thanks for posting about this! I am always interested in your insight and opinions!

Kristi Helvig said...

I have to admit I've never heard of this story before this blog post, but it sounds like something that would fascinate me. As a psychologist, I've talked to multiple people who would be classified as sociopaths or psychopaths according to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (however most are incarcerated for other reasons than murder), and they often come across as friendly, helpful and thoughtful (to speak to one comment here) which doesn't contradict the definition in any way.

This sounds like it would make a great book, Nathan. People with a personal connection to the story (such as you) often have the most compelling tale to tell. :) As you are already a talented writer, this would be amazing to read.

Brigid Kemmerer said...

I've been captivated by the Serial podcast. I went to high school near Woodlawn High school, and though I graduated in 1996, I knew most of the places referenced in the podcast very, very well. I even somewhat remember Hae's murder being reported in local news, because she was close to my age, and she worked at Owings Mills Mall (where I also worked, though I didn't know her). I even go to the Woodlawn Public Library frequently, and just as described, it's basically a part of the parking lot for Woodlawn High School.

I can't say one way or another whether Adnan did it. That said, I couldn't have convicted him if I sat on that jury. I agree with you that it's very fishy that Adnan can't remember many details about the day his girlfriend went missing. Just like you can remember vivid memories from your own past surrounding a major event, I have plenty of memories that are linked to BIG days in my life. That said, was the day he got a call from the cops about Hae such a big day? It's not like he got a call saying they found her body. He was admittedly high for much of the afternoon, and he got a call from a police officer asking if he'd seen her. It doesn't have the same weight. I think it seems weightier because we know all of the following events. Even her own friends said no one was very concerned at first since she'd talked about going to be with her father in California.

But then ... he didn't try to call her? If a police officer called me and asked if I'd seen my brother, I'd say no (he lives in another state), but I'd hang up the phone and try to call him. The fact that neither Adnan NOR Don tried to call her just feels ... weird. Odd.

But again, the guy was convicted on someone else's testimony. No evidence. I still find that shocking. And considering our "fair" justice system ... I find that a little terrifying.

Petrea Burchard said...

It's a fascinating story, that's for sure. I would like to have gotten to know Hae better. It might easier to tell the story if we don't have strong feelings for Hae and her family. But nothing about this story is easy.

I remember in one of the later episodes, perhaps the second to last, when Koenig returns to one of her experts to ask if cases like this—muddled, confusing, full of holes—are the norm. He says no. "This case is a mess," he says.

It's a good story because we don't know what happened, but someone does, someone who may never tell, someone we can't quite see. It's a real life mystery, and that is incredibly compelling.

Elie Axelroth said...

An editor once told me life isn't the same as a story. I think that's the dilemma here. Koenig couldn't have any idea where the story was going and if there even was a story. That said, I was surprised--and disappointed--that the ending was, well, not an ending at all. I'm hoping we get the results of the DNA testing. But maybe that's just my need for having it tied up.

dolorah said...

I have not listened to the show. But I understand how it could be that a man can be both charming and likable, and also be a cold blooded killer. But who really knows what is in the mind of another, and I'm inclined to believe that sometimes events spiral out of control, and one lie leads to another, and eventually even the person who committed the crime may not be clear on the details as they occurred. Like being in a car accident and not knowing exactly the sequence of events even though the police can walk you through it based on evidence.

As a social worker I've seen many weird crimes committed by people who have no clue what they are doing, or how. And the lack of true remorse or guilt is mind boggling; makes one wonder if it could possibly have happened. Except, there is always a victim to corroberate.

If the evidence was that flimsy, I'm glad I was not on the jury.

Terin Miller said...

I have to confess I've never seen this show.

The concept sounds interesting, except it seems a bit prurient: it panders to the salacious fascination it seems particularly us Americans have with murder and mystery. Not to mention murderers, or what motivates someone to commit murder.

I was a police reporter for more than 6 years of my early reporting career. I used to say after the experience that nothing people did surprised me anymore, it just tended to disappoint me.
That remains true to me today. My first major "exclusive" was an interview with a serial killer on trial in India, when I was 21 years old. He was charming, and there were many stories about him that were repeated in the press. He was the guy on whom "Serpentine" was based. To me, the most important point he made was that it did not matter whether or not he committed the crime: what mattered was whether or not the prosecution could prove it. He wound up with a life sentence, escaped, was recaptured, and served 21 years in a prison in India.

He is back in prison now, being accused, captured, tried and convicted of a murder that occurred in Nepal in the 1970s. He is serving a life sentence currently in Kathmandu. And still denies any responsibility or involvement in the murder of which he was accused, even claiming he had never been to Kathmandu before his return in the early 2000s.

The conflicting emotions you describe watching this show--and by the presenter--sound exactly like what happens to both a member of a jury, and observers of any trial.

The fact this Adnan has been convicted, and incarcerated, for the crime, indicates at some point the state or prosecutor was able to prove to 12 people "tried and true" that he was in fact guilty, "beyond a reasonable doubt."

He cannot be retried for the crime--accused again. However, if "new evidence" is developed, he does have a right to APPEAL his conviction, which could result in a new trial by a higher authority than the state/county court that convicted and sentenced him. Or having the charges dropped, and or being a witness to a new trial of the other potential "suspect," someone NOT convicted previously of the same crime. And there is always the possibility of more than one person being involved--which would make it a conspiracy to commit murder. Or to at least try and hide one.

Either the presenter is trying to help with such an appeal, or is exploiting the possibility of an appeal for a highly rated, much watched podcast/show.

In other words, I find it hard to believe the presenter is doing this for Adnan. She is doing it for herself.

Again: the difference is, a reporter covers a trial. That reporter may have personal opinions based on the facts and testimony presented by both sides. But the reporter's job is to just report what is observed, not color it with opinion masquerading as fact.

Which brings me ultimately to my last point: trials--murder, or any other charge--are open to the public in this country, and free. Anyone wanting to witness a trial can just sit in the courtroom and hear the same testimony the jury does, and the same arguments.

In fact, through the years, I've covered several trials that had observers who were elderly or retired and preferred real life to television.

I have not watched the show, as I said in the beginning. But that is because I've covered enough murders and trials, convictions and even executions, to find no interest in supporting essentially a media exploitation of what is, anyway, a public event--unless she winds up the show by helping Adnan get an appeal based on her independent investigation and interviews.

Let me know if that is the end result. Otherwise, other than for her own ratings/fame/prestige, I can see and think of no reason for it. Or to watch it. The same as I change the channel on which "48 Hours" and other "investigative" shows appear.

Sarah Hipple said...

Wow. This sounds interesting. I've been listening to a few podcasts, but never heard of this one.

I can see why it's captured so many people's interest/passion.

But it also sounds a little horrific - learning all the gruesome details about a potentially innocent convicted murderer and this woman's death. Of course, no wonder it's attracted attention - we're all drawn to a heartbreaking (good) story.

Thanks for sharing.

Bernardo Montes de Oca said...

Hello, Nathan!

It seems to have caught everybody--the new serial virus. I will have to listen to it. We follow a lot of podcasts because of my job (journalism) so I'll add this one to the list.

I am very intrigued to hear Koenig and her transparent bias, given that we vow as journalists to avoid it.

Thanks for the great post!

Emily said...

I know I'm coming into this discussion late, but I listened to the podcast, week by week--obsessively--and came to the conclusion that Adnan is guilty. I think it makes a great story for him to be innocent, but I just don't think he was.

I was recently on a jury. It was a six week triple homicide case. I think that being on this jury has also influenced how I think of this story. In my case, we found the defendants (there were 3 of them) guilty. They were recently sentenced to life in prison, without parole. It was something that I, and my fellow jurors, took extremely seriously. We took copious notes and when we were finally able to deliberate, we did so respectfully and thoroughly. No one else, besides the judge and the defendant's mothers were at the trial every single day. Reporters flitted in and out, the victims' families flitted in and out, we were the only ones who heard the entire testimony. Everyday.

I'm not saying that juries can't make mistakes or that prosecutors or defense attorneys might not do their jobs well, but--after my experience--I believe in the system that has been so carefully set up. I think that in most cases, it works.

The fact that Koenig wasn't able to prove Adnan innocent was enough for me. It was so obvious that she wanted to be innocent, and yet--she couldn't prove it.

Petrea Burchard said...

Adnan Syed has been granted an appeal.

Kristen Pham said...

I loved this series. I've been following Sarah on This American Life, but she completely upped her game with this series. Now I'm wondering if her next topic will be this compelling.

Related Posts with Thumbnails