by Park MacDougald
Tuesday, 20
September 2022
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17:57

Did Serial get a guilty man off the hook?

Adnan Syed was rightly convicted — no matter what a podcast implied
by Park MacDougald
Adnan Syed was released from prison this week

Yesterday, a Baltimore judge vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when both were high-school students. A combination of prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel from Syed’s defence lawyers, and the discovery of “new evidence”, according to the judge, had caused the state to “lose confidence in the integrity of the conviction.” Syed has been released after 23 years in prison, pending a decision by prosecutors on whether or not to re-try the case.

Syed, of course, is no ordinary criminal — he was the star of season one of Serial, a 2014 podcast that drew millions of listeners and nearly single-handedly launched the current booms in both podcasting and prestige true-crime content. And he was the subject of a follow-on documentary from HBO, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Until yesterday, Syed was likely the best-known convicted murderer in America.

While Serial never flatly asserted that Syed was innocent, the upshot of its coverage was clear enough — the prosecution’s case had holes, the defence lawyer was incompetent, and the evidence was not enough to send Syed away for life. As series lead Sarah Koenig told the New York Times this morning:

There was no way for us to say definitively what happened. But what we were pointing out in our story was that the timeline of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems. Which meant the people who convicted Adnan of murder, they didn’t know what happened either.

And so this kid goes to prison for life at 18, based on a story that wasn’t accurate. That’s what we wanted people to think about: even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?

- Sarah Koenig

Indeed, this kind of can’t-prove-a-negative question-begging has been par for the course in the media coverage of Syed’s case. It is reflected in the judge’s motion to vacate, which relied heavily on the storylines forwarded by both the podcast and the HBO series.

The tactic, generally speaking, has been to lead with an extremely strong version of the defence’s case, chin-stroking meditations about the unreliability of human memory and the problems of the criminal justice system, and humanising interviews with and about Syed. Then you present a watered-down version of the prosecution’s case, zeroing in on minor points of uncertainty  that are irrelevant to the question of guilt but seed doubts as to the reliability of any evidence in the case. You toss in vague innuendo about prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias, and incompetent defence. Then you throw up your hands and say, “Well, he may have killed her, but who can really say, and should we really have a justice system that sends people away based on less-than-certain evidence?”

Well, yes we should. No one could be convicted of anything under the standard advocated by Koenig and others. That is why radical prosecutors have adopted similar tactics to exonerate guilty people in order to prove a point about our “broken” criminal justice system. Indeed, the motion to vacate in Syed’s case is a by-the-book example of what Thomas Hogan has described as “The Exoneration Hustle”, in which reform-minded prosecutors artificially manufacture grave doubts about what are, in reality, solid and just convictions.

Despite all the supposed doubts raised by Serial, HBO, and now Judge Melissa Phinn, Syed’s conviction was solid and just. An accomplice testified at trial that he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body in the public park where it was discovered, and this testimony was corroborated by cell tower evidence showing Syed’s phone in the park on the night in question. As that witness, Jay Wilds, told the Intercept in 2014:

There’s nothing that’s gonna change the fact that this guy drove up in front of my grandmother’s house, popped the trunk, and had his dead girlfriend in the trunk. Anything that’s going to make [Syed] innocent doesn’t involve me.
- Jay Wilds

None of the questions raised in the years since — can cell-phone tower records provide an exact location? Does Wilds remember the exact time when Syed first showed him Hae’s body? — have done anything to undermine these damning, overlapping pieces of evidence.

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Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
12 days ago

Thank You for caring about the voiceless, murdered teenage girl – Hae Min Lee – and her family, who have been re traumatized by this circus.
Victims are just not fashionable enough for the “woke” to give a damn about.

J Bryant
J Bryant
13 days ago

The ten-thousand-dollar question is whether Syed will now sue the state of Maryland for wrongful imprisonment (and whether HBO will make a special about Syed’s “Quest for Justice”).

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
12 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The ten billion dollar question is who actually strangled to death a teenage girl named Hae Min Lee and buried her body like an animal?
It’s her family that should sue.
Will a podcast be made about them or their murdered family member?
The Left disgusts me: I was a Democrat for my entire life, but these sheltered people so completely romanticize criminals that I can no longer vote for them.
Movng forward, I will vote for the law & order candidates: the Republicans.

Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones
12 days ago

Personally, I think there’s a good chance he’s guilty, though perhaps with reasonable doubt. I didn’t sit through the trial though, so my opinion counts for nothing.
However to blame a podcast for getting him out of jail is slightly bizarre. Yes, without the podcast he wouldn’t have had the publicity to even get a hearing, but the conviction was quashed on the basis of the prosecution. They are the ones that broke the law and withheld exculpatory evidence, not Sarah Koenig. They were the ones who misrepresented the cell phone tower evidence, not a journalist.
Anyway, they are free to attempt another prosecution, though it seems unlikely given the amount of time and the lack of DNA evidence against him.

Nathan
Nathan
12 days ago
Reply to  Kevin Jones

Quite. It’s as if the author hasn’t taken the time to actually discover what happened at the hearing and what the prosecution is now saying — it don’t have confidence in the verdict, and it has diddly-squat to to do with a near decade-old podcast.

The author also asks if a criminal justice system should convict on less-than-certain evidence, and answers by saying yes. Well, reasonable doubt means the evidence should be almost certain. Koenig, I don’t believe, is arguing for anything more than that. All she contends is that the evidence convicting Syed falls short of that. And the prosecution and judge think so, too.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
11 days ago

Exactly! When I saw the headline, I thought, “Well at least Hae Min got 23 years of justice.”
I started out listening to the podcast thinking he was innocent, and of course you can feel Koenig pushing you at every step to find him innocent. The more I heard, the more I was convinced he was guilty. At the end I was horrified that people were trying to get him out of prison.

Charles Boespflug
Charles Boespflug
12 days ago

But how much weight should we give Jay Wilds’ testimony?

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
12 days ago

Apparently, the jury who actually heard his testimony gave it enough weight to convict Syed.
The bottom line is this: if he didn’t do it, who did? A teenage girl named Hae Min Lee was strangled to death.
Who will put any comparable energy into giving justice to the Lee family?
Has a family been re traumatized for political reasons? For entertainment purposes?
Trial by podcast is far more sketchy than anything our justice system currently does.

David Pogge
David Pogge
11 days ago

Perhaps a key issue here is the extent to which our ‘entertainment culture’ and its voracious need for material that it can present in ever more engaging ways is giving us a distorted view of reality and – this may be the new part – the enthusiasm with which those of us who consume this entertainment want to believe ‘a good story’ and lack the skepticism and intellectual rigor to recognize the blurry but critical boundary between entertainment and reality, fact and fantasy, and truth and fiction. There is sort of conspiracy here between those who make entertainment and those who consume it, with neither honestly recognizing the destructive effect that this conspiracy has on our society and on civilization.

Ailsa Roddie
Ailsa Roddie
11 days ago

The devil is really in the detail on this one, and you decided not to mention any of it. The stuff about prosecutorial conduct isn’t at all “vague” as you are claiming, for example.

I actually hadn’t realised how closely this case had become linked to culture wars, so it’s very interesting now 8 years after Serial and 23 years after the event to see that played out in all the standard scripts, as you do above, and in some of the comments too.

Kara Rita
Kara Rita
5 days ago

I too believe he is most likely guilty. I have read, listened and watched everything on this case. For me the HBO doc is the most troublesome because it is highly favorable to him and yet he still offered no memories of the day, no answers (I mean why even give him a doc?). All that time to come up with something, anything, he offers nothing. Because there is nothong he can say that wont be disproved.

Neil McLean
Neil McLean
10 days ago

Listen to the first series of Undisclosed podcast. That explains what the author doesn’t understand about the unreliability of the evidence used to convict.