Why Serial Is Going To Get It Wrong

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This Thursday marks the end of the first season of the Serial podcast – which consists of 12 entertaining episodes of reporter Sarah Keonig trying to decipher clues and investigate the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee.

For those unfamiliar with the case in question, it essentially boils down to this – Adned Syed was convicted of strangling his ex-girlfriend after his friend Jay testified at trial that (a) Adned confessed to murdering Hae, and (b) the two of them buried her body together. Prosecutors were then able to connect Adned’s cell phone to the place and time where Hae’s body was buried.

While this may seem like an open and shut case, Keonig goes into great detail trying to determine what really happened. This reporting has provided American employees everywhere with a guilty pleasure to listen to at work while they take a much needed break from going on facebook and sexting their old high school classmates.

In all her hours talking on the phone with Adned, Keonig does an impressive job at trying to be objective about him. But she’s still spending hours talking on the phone with him, and that colors people’s perspective – perhaps even more so than speaking to them in person. When you talk to someone on the phone, your mind fills in the perfect image of the person on the other end of the line. That’s how Manti Teo, a guy who probably could have gotten any girl he wanted, ended up with Lennay Kekkua, who was really just a weird short guy throwing his voice like a girl. Because talking on the phone feels intimate.

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The phone problem extends to the audience too. Listeners have essentially been on the phone for 11 episodes with Adned. We all want to believe him. He seems believable. We’re ready for Nev and Max to come out and help us figure out if Adned’s really our true love or if he’s just Catfishing us.

And Keonig’s investigationmakes it clear that much of Jay’s story is ether inconsistent or outright lies. She pokes holes in the cell phone records showing that the phone’s locations do not match up with the state’s timeline of the murder.

Because Adned seems so believable, and because there are so many inconsistencies in Jay’s story, most listeners have some doubt over whether Adned committed the murder. That’s why I believe Thursday’s episode will end with a lesson about how regardless of if we think Adned did it, the state should not be convicting people where there is so much doubt – that we should be absolutely sure we know exactly what happened before we send someone to prison.

Because how could anyone convict when there are so many unanswered questions? Did the pay phone at Best Buy really exit? Was it possible that Jay could commit the murder that far from the school given the limited amount of time? Why didn’t the cell phone records earlier in the day line up with Jay’s account? Why did Jay’s story change so many times? Why did Jay allegedly talk to Nisha about his video store job before he even worked there?

But this lesson may miss the mark. While there are inconsistencies in the prosecution’s theory, and many valid questions have been raised, it seems almost impossible to imagine a scenario where Adned is innocent. This isn’t a case like O.J. Simpson. There are no mysterious “real killers” to blame it on. We’re not going to pull the mask off the bad guy and find it was old farmer McClusky. Either Jay, Adned or both were almost certainly involved.

Jay went to the police, showed them where Hae’s car was hidden, and told them that he buried the body with Adned. His account was backed up by the cell records showing that Adned’s cell phone was in the park at the time and place the body was allegedly buried. He testified in front of his own community that Adned confessed to killing Hae and that he himself helped bury the body.

So if Adnen didn’t kill Hae, Jay has to be lying. But why? Was he trying to frame Jay from the start? Or did he murder Hae and then just try to pin it on Adnen after the fact? Neither of those scenarios makes any sense – they’re both too risky. If Adnen was seen on video at the time of the murder, if they had taken roll call at track, if Jay left any physical evidence at the  murder scene, or if Adnen is able to prove in any way that he was not the killer – then Jay is a liar who admitted to burying Hae.

In other words, unless Jay was perfect in his planning or extremely lucky, he’s going to prison for murder. And even though Jay didn’t end up serving jail time, he still plead guilty to being an accessory to murder in a high profile case – which isn’t something you want to explain on dates or your Home Depot application:

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“I didn’t kill anyone, I just helped bury the body – so I (SEE NEXT PAGE OF APPLICATION)

was basically innocent. Plus if you listen to episode 6 of the Serial Podcast, they stated the body was very difficult to find. So I obviously know my way around a shovel, which would make me a great asset for the gardening team.”

So while it is very hard to believe that Jay is telling the whole truth, it is nearly, if not entirely, impossible to come up with a plausible scenario where Adnen had nothing to do with the murder. You’d have to believe Jay was this evil genius who succeeded in framing Adnan with some master plan. But that’s not plausible at all.

That’s the true lesson of Serial. Even when an eye witness tells us what happened, and that witness proves his involvement, and that story is backed up by third party evidence – we still have our doubts. It’s not that that the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s that our minds are built to let the doubt creep in.

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