The Serial Podcast Raises Questions about Justice

For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to Serial podcast while I exercise. Serial is a weekly podcast (spun off from This American Life) and it tells one story – a true story – over the course of an entire season. Their debut season was a doozy! It covered the story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18 year old girl living in Baltimore, and the subsequent conviction of her 17 year old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for the crime. Adnan has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence and host Sarah Koenig set out to uncover the truth.

I have to hand it to Sarah: her reporting and telling of the story was masterful! It was fascinating, thoughtful, Photo by Emily Codysuspenseful, and engaging. I completely understand why Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and why a number of other podcasts and forums have sprung up to discuss it. Serial was so awesome that I couldn’t wait to exercise just so I could listen to it and I am not someone who loves exercise.

One of the reasons why Serial has become so popular was due to the subject matter. Clearly, given the number of true crime shows on television and in books, Americans simply cannot get enough of criminal justice stories. We love a good mystery and the way the podcast unfolded, it was almost like we got to go on the discovery with Sarah. As many journalism experts have pointed out, we got to see first-hand how good journalism works. And, unlike most novels or television episodes, there was no clear-cut resolution. Everyone could weigh in with their opinion. I’ll admit that was entertaining but, when you consider that these people are real and their lives are deeply impacted by these events, the fun factor goes way down.

In fact, there was much about the story that was disturbing, even above and beyond the murder itself. One of the most relevant to me (of course) was the overall absence of psychological analysis. Yes, Sarah did eventually interview a forensic psychologist but that didn’t happen until the 11th episode and then only to discuss psychopathic tendencies. That came late in the series, and did not account for many of the other psychological variables just begging to be explained. I was bothered that many people, including Sarah, seemed to assign inaccurate meaning to adolescent behavior, Adnan’s demeanor in prison, and to the key witness’ alleged terror of a teenage boy with no history of violence. Nor was there much discussion of jury dynamics. Once again, psychological analysis could have provided some deep insight but it was barely touched upon. This is not news but….sigh.

Another upsetting aspect of the case was how the criminal justice system was depicted. Although there didn’t seem to be any truly egregious corruption or mistakes, there was some shady behavior on the part of the prosecution, a possible inadequate defense and unquestionably some overlooked evidence. Once they had a definite suspect in mind (Adnan), it seems like the cops and the prosecution operated under a confirmation bias instead of looking for the truth. While it was comforting to hear that most murder cases are open and shut because guilt is usually easy to spot, what about the ones that aren’t, like Adnan’s case? I want to know that the presumption of innocence – the very foundation upon which our legal system was built – is still taken seriously but it doesn’t seem that it is.

Despite his continual protestations of innocence, even Adnan looked for a plea bargain. He explained that, as he became experienced in the ways of the legal system, he realized that justice was an ideal, not a reality. He watched while some fellow prisoners who admitted their guilt served less time than he, a supposedly innocent man, all because they showed “remorse.” If I really wanted to get picky, I would ask how words like sorry can mean anything when the “guilty” are not given any opportunity to show true regretful behavior (wouldn’t that be more productive, both for the person, the victim and society in general?). But when simple remorseful words – heartfelt or not – are the get out of jail sooner card, who among us would not be tempted to just take the deal?

And I’m not just taking Adnan’s word for it. Other people familiar with the justice system have weighed in too and the statistics are troubling. The conviction rate for prosecutors is ridiculously high and most cases (95-97%) are settled by plea bargains, not trial. Many people charged with crimes are too scared to try their luck with tough-on-crime judges or juries who, unless you’re famous, tend to believe that if you’re sitting in front of them, you’re probably there for a reason. For those who do go to trial, a lot depends on your lawyer and most good ones cost a lot. Anyone who believes that justice is not for sale hasn’t been paying attention.

It is this overarching tone of injustice that truly drives Serial’s first season because, at the heart of it, is the possibility of an innocent man being imprisoned for 15 years (so far). That is not a situation many of us wish to ponder. We want to believe that our justice system is fair and that if we were falsely accused, our innocence (instead of money, privilege or just plain luck) would be the only attribute we would need to be set free. Yet if we are to believe Deirdre Enright, whose work as Director of Investigations at the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project Clinic was highlighted in Serial, this frequently is not the case. Our justice system is seriously broken and innocent people often pay the price.

So what are we to do about all of this? I can think of a few things. First, if you haven’t already, listen to Serial. Even if you believe Adnan is guilty and the justice system worked correctly, it is well worth your time. Second, while you are listening, pay attention to points in which knowing more about the why behind people’s behavior might be important. The more people who advocate for a role for psychologists in our justice system, the better off we will be. Finally, get educated about the criminal justice system in general (Deirdre Enright is a great place to start) and then write your government officials requesting transformations in the system. If there is enough push for it, maybe we can implement change and then instead of being an ideal, justice will be a reality.

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