November 30, 2014

WALSH | A ‘Serial’ Obsession

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Since October 3, I have been obsessed with a murder. I am not alone in my obsession — over one million Americans join me every week to eagerly learn about new shreds of information and scraps of evidence about this crime. It is not from an episode of Law & Order, and it is not from the next up-and-coming murder mystery novel. It is a real, horrible crime that resulted in real consequences for real people.

The vehicle of my obsession is “Serial.” In case you have not yet heard about the show from your friends who fervently discuss it every Thursday morning, “Serial” is a new podcast from the producers of “This American Life” — one of the most celebrated radio programs in the country. While “This American Life” tells multiple stories fitting into one theme for every episode, “Serial” tells one story over the course of many episodes.

The story in question is the murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old girl who was killed near her Baltimore high school in January of 1999. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was eventually charged with and convicted of her murder. He has been serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison ever since, despite avidly maintaining his innocence for the past fifteen years. “Serial” was born when a friend of Adnan’s sought the investigative journalism skills of Sarah Koenig, a producer from “This American Life,” to prove that a conviction in the case was unwarranted.

As the story has unfolded week by week over the past two months, I constantly find myself considering the facts of the case. The details of the crime itself are so incredibly murky that every time new evidence and testimonies and pieces of information are provided, my opinions on the case flip-flop completely. One week, I will be convinced that Adnan was unjustly thrown into prison as an innocent man. The next, I will be convinced that he is a psychopath who deserves to be in jail.

In order to fuel my quest for the truth, I have taken my obsession with “Serial” a bit further than most fans. I have pressured my friends into listening to the podcast, and then picked their brains for discussion. I have pored over court documents in the public record. I have read all of the crazy theories on Reddit (“Jay did it! Sarah Koenig did it! The Mail Kimp did it!”). Ultimately, I have determined that we might not ever know what truly happened to Hae Min Lee, because whoever knows exactly what happened is undoubtedly lying about it.

Some in the “Serial”-obsessed community worry that the story will not have a definitive ending, and that the entire show is just an in-depth contemplation on the nature of truth. Despite my hope for an ultimate conclusion on who committed the murder, I don’t think that using “Serial” as a vehicle of discussion for topics other than this particular crime would be a bad move on the part of the creators.

Because “Serial” is not about just one crime. The show spins a concerning tale of the broken American justice system and how it sometimes causes more damage than good. Many legal experts have expressed their shock that Adnan was ever convicted of Hae’s murder, since physical and DNA evidence were practically nonexistent in the case. Some theorists suspect that the Baltimore police did not even care if the right person went to jail as long as they got a conviction in the case.

While some of these opinions are more cynical than most, we must consider the fact that the United States’ criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Although the United States is home to only five percent of the world’s population, it houses almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. While many of these individuals do indeed deserve a period of penance for their crimes, there are too many among America’s prison population that do not deserve to be there. The mere existence of organizations like the Innocence Project, which is currently investigating Adnan Syed’s case, shows that the American justice system does not always get it right.

This is not to say that the hardworking people of the United States’ police departments, district attorney offices and correctional facilities are trying to put innocent people in prison. Nonetheless, our country’s legal processes and laws must be amended to prevent this from happening. Former Washington, D.C. detective Jim Trainum stated on “Serial” that typical procedure for criminal investigations is not necessarily focused on finding out the truth about what happened, but rather focused on building the best possible case. This is an example of a practice that could lead to false convictions.

But let us also not forget the victim, who deserves justice more so than anyone. Hae Min Lee was not only a real person, but an exceptional person. A star student and athlete, Hae was well loved by her friends and family. She was known by all for her quick wit and sparkling smile. What happened to Hae was a terrible crime, and I think that many in the “Serial” fandom tend to forget that fact. Sensationalizing crime is an extremely negative characteristic of American media, and one that often pays more attention to the perpetrator of the crime rather than the victim. Whether or not Adnan is guilty or innocent is not the most important question that “Serial” asks; the question most direly in need of an answer is whether or not Hae has received justice.

Overall, “Serial” is a new type of cultural phenomenon. In an age when many say that broadcast journalism and media are fading away, the podcast has brought new life to the field. “Serial,” unlike many crime stories, has forced its listeners to confront uncomfortable facts about the nature of crime, justice and truth. I know for sure that my obsession won’t be ending any time soon, and if I’ve convinced you to listen to “Serial,” yours won’t be either.

Conna Walsh is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Word with Walsh appears alternate Mondays this semester.