September 23, 2022

Within the past few years, a strange point of debate has circulated among the writers of thrillers and mysteries: given the violence inherent to the genre, what are our responsibilities when it comes to the crimes we portray on the page? There’s a sense, perhaps owing to the increasing belief amongst writers of all stripes that storytelling is now a form of activism, that even fictional stabbings, shootings, and disembowelments need to be rendered with care — or, at least, in keeping with a broad commitment to social justice.

It’s hard to say if this debate has produced more sensitive depictions of fictional murder, or how to quantify the notion of harm when the person you’re killing never actually existed to begin with. It’s easier to locate the source of this anxiety. There has been, in the last decade, an absolute blurring of the lines not just between entertainment and activism, but between lurid tales of fictional murder and the real crimes, real tragedies, that happen to real people.

Responsible for this, at least in part, is the boom in true crime podcasts — a boom that shows no sign of slowing. Shows like My Favorite Murder or Dr. Death boast tens of millions of loyal listeners; investigative journalists have won coveted awards for In the Dark and S-Town; and podcasts are not only being adapted for TV (Dirty John) but parodied in killer comedies (Only Murders in the Building). But one podcast, and one story, started it all — a story that seems to have reached its final act this week.

On 19th September, Adnan Sayed, the subject of the breakout podcast Serial, was released from the prison. He had served 23 years of a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose partially-buried body was discovered in a Baltimore park in the February of 1999. For 8 of those years, journalist Sarah Koenig has been chronicling the case for Serial, documenting the flaws in the prosecution — as well as the flaws in the defence. Syed has always maintained his innocence.

The wave of interest generated by Serial, which included record-breaking downloads and international media coverage, led to a renewed interest in Syed’s trial. The focus raised uncomfortable questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system regardless of how you felt about the question of his guilt (Serial‘s audience was split on this). Books were written; TV specials were filmed; another podcast, this one produced by Syed’s childhood friend Rabia Chaudry and openly dedicated to proving his innocence, sought to keep the case in the public eye.

While Koenig had always maintained a journalist’s distance and objectivity, the new spate of Syed-related content was different, something between a spectator sport and a soap opera— one for which the public had begun to crave, or even expect, a Hollywood-worthy ending. Adnan Syed was starting to feel more like a mythological figure than a real person, and his story more like a thrilling crime drama than what it actually was: a complicated and tangled glimpse into the dysfunctional underbelly of criminal justice. That the mythology surrounding him might be bullshit — or that he might in fact be guilty — became unsayable, if not unthinkable.

Despite all the ink that has been spilled on the dangers of trial by media, people don’t seem to recognise that these same dangers are present in the idea of exoneration-by-podcast, or by seeing Syed as a character rather than a case study. The truth is always thornier than a popular narrative can allow for — and the more we allow ourselves to be captivated by the dramatic tale of a vulnerable and sympathetic hero caught in the system, the less attention is paid to the system itself, even though that’s where the problems lie.

Two years after Serial told his story, Syed’s request for a new trial was granted by Maryland courts in 2016, but was reversed by a higher court and ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court three years later, just in time for the release of an HBO docu-series, The Case Against Adnan Syed. By the time a judge vacated the conviction and released Syed this week, citing new evidence that cast doubt upon his guilt, he was one of the most famous prisoners in the country. And for those who were glued to Serial back in 2014 like an Agatha Christie miniseries, this week’s plot twist is the ultimate listener experience: the kind of courtroom victory you usually only see in the movies.

This story is a rare beast in the world of true crime: a riveting mystery that managed to hold the interest of its audience over the course of almost a decade, before coming to a satisfying conclusion in a world where the open ending is par for the course. Because mostly, true crime podcasts tend to be time-wasters: eleven hours of red herrings, cliffhangers, and dead ends, until a final episode in which a journalist with vocal fry levies a final, shrugging judgment: after all this, we’ll just never really know who did what, or why. Even Koenig ended Serial‘s opening run with a straightforward acknowledgment of the impossibility of knowing the truth; her only certainty was that he’d been ill-served by the justice system.

“As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed,” she said. “I have to acquit. Even if, in my heart of hearts, I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors.”

It’s tempting to see Syed’s release as an example of podcasts as a force for good. Occasionally, they are this. In the Dark investigated the racially charged 20-year quest by Mississippi prosecutors to convict Curtis Flowers for a 1996 mass shooting at a furniture store; the podcast was credited with drawing renewed attention to the case that ultimately resulted in Flowers’ exoneration. Other podcasts — such as the first season of To Live and Die in LA — offer a satisfying conclusion, a sense of a story well told, if not a legal victory. And Serial, despite its ambiguity as to Syed’s guilt, left no doubt that the justice system had failed him.

We tolerate the dissatisfaction baked into the true-crime podcast model because the binge model of entertainment makes it tolerable: there’s always another podcast, another season, another story. And if you’re not exactly satisfied, at least you’re always full. But amid this mindless true-crime consumption, we’re missing something. A lot of things, actually: not just the countless stories of injustice that are too banal to catch the interest of an audience, but also the true cost of a conclusion like the one Serial just reached.

It’s easy to imagine a straight causal line between the podcast and the payoff, but it is also a mistake to do so. What it actually takes to free a wrongfully convicted person is not 12 slickly-produced episodes, but endless years and countless hours of filing motions, shuffling papers, and waiting for decisions from a byzantine carceral system that would rather allow innocent people to languish in prison than admit it made a mistake. And while the public interest in Adnan Syed’s case surely helped his cause, we should realise: it didn’t just take a podcast to set him free. It took eight years, a crowdfund, and a media empire. An innocent prisoner, in general, can only dream that their case might attract such scrutiny.

We are also missing this: we may view wrongful convictions or botched murder investigations as excellent podcast fodder — a story for some journalist to unravel years down the line for our entertainment — but these miscarriages of justice get very little attention in the moment, when there’s still time to stop opportunities from being lost or lives from being ruined. UnHerd’s Park MacDougald criticised the “can’t prove a negative” narrative that Serial constructed around Syed’s case, but surely this was Serial‘s point: the impossibility of proving a negative is fundamental to the entire concept of a fair trial. Defendants are not required to prove they didn’t do it; it’s the state’s job to prove they did, and to do so responsibly and within the confines of the law.

Right now, too many prosecutors abdicate that duty. They choose to cut corners, withhold evidence, or threaten draconian sentences if the accused demands the jury trial to which they are constitutionally entitled. It’s because of this abdication that Adnan Syed’s case didn’t get the scrutiny, or the defence, it deserved, until Sarah Koenig deigned to give it to him. Of course, it’s good that podcasts like Serial expose these injustices in hindsight. It would be better if they never happened at all.

It remains to be seen whether the state will attempt to try Syed again. In all likelihood, they won’t — not least because a new trial will come with a new round of public scrutiny that not only makes great content but makes the bar for a guilty verdict much, much higher. One gets the sense that the State would like this show to be over. And so it probably will be.

There’s one last episode of Serial, of course, one last attempt to squeeze every bit of juice from this endless saga. Koenig herself continues not to offer her personal opinion on Syed’s innocence, choosing instead to focus on the legal aspects of the case, as she always has. But there will be one last victory lap for everyone who always believed in Syed’s innocence. Ultimately, though, the story of a man’s life after prison will never hold the same kind of drama as the story of how he came to be there, and people will move on, if they haven’t already. To the next crime, the next tragedy, the next injustice we didn’t care about until it was already too late to be anything but entertainment, with the superficial gloss of activism on top. They’ll keep chasing that high, the one that comes from hunting down a killer or setting an innocent free, the one that feels like reading a crime novel except better, because you didn’t just hear a story, you participated in a moment.

On the day of Adnan Syed’s release, Rabia Chaudry tweeted in exasperation: Serial fans, random strangers, were messaging her en masse asking to come with her to the courthouse — to be right there with Syed’s friends and family, welcoming him as he walked out the door. In eight years of following this story, they had come to imagine they were a part of it, even essential to it, like a fandom. But that’s the difference between true crime and fiction, between consumption and activism. And it’s an unfortunate but necessary truth: if you really want to make a difference, it won’t happen with your earbuds in.

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