In an age when costume dramas filmed in exotic locations crowd the airwaves, it is hard to imagine a radio program gripping the world. But that was what happened with Serial. Until Serial, a celebrity confessing a mea culpa to Terry Gross was the height of broadcast radio. But Serial set a new bar. And it was not even a radio show, just a podcast.
In January 1999, a seventeen-year-old Korean-American girl named Hae Lee disappeared in Baltimore, Maryland. A month later, her body was discovered in a park by a man whom Sara Koenig, Serial’s producer, calls Mr. S. It is clear that Mr. S, who had a shady history of streaking, was tipped off about the location of the body. For one, Mr. S’s excuse that he needed to relieve himself ten minutes into the ride from his home to work just does not hold water—no pun intended—and second, the body was so well-hidden in the woods that without knowing the burial site, it would have been impossible for anyone to stumble upon it.
I must warn you that if you wish to continue, spoilers follow.
The police eliminated the usual suspects, including Hae’s boyfriend, Don, who allegedly had a watertight alibi. But it was only when they got an anonymous tip about the ex-boyfriend that they honed in on Adnan Syed, a seventeen-year old Pakistani-American student. Still, there was no physical evidence linking Adnan to Hae’s body.
What prompted his arrest were the calls made from his cellphone, which led them to Jay Wilds, an African-American drug dealer. Jay told the cops that he had helped Adnan bury the body the evening of Hae’s disappearance; cell tower records confirmed some of his story. Adnan could not remember the events of the day and had no solid alibi for the time of the murder, which, based on the phone records, occurred during the twenty-one minutes between end of school and Jay being shown Hae’s body in the trunk of her car.
If all this is not dizzying enough, it turn out that Jay is an unreliable narrator who keeps shifting the timeline of events as well as the location where he saw the body in the trunk.
Regardless, Adnan is serving a sentence of life plus thirty years. Why? Because his attorney lost the jury’s sympathy by acting too aggressively in the courtroom. She also ignored a letter a student had written to Adnan, providing him with an alibi. Racism played a part; the prosecution argued that he should be refused bail because he was a Pakistani who was a flight risk. Annan is in fact an American-born citizen. The police did not test Hae’s rape kit, nor did they conduct DNA tests on objects found at the burial site. Adan’s statements sounded fishy, as if he were in fact guilty. Later, his attorney was disbarred for stealing money from her clients. No wonder Adnan was convicted.
As you can see, no one comes out well in this story, not even Hae, who remains a shadowy figure, a victim who is easily dismissed.
The series made me meditate about the presumption of innocence. Adnan Syed was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I firmly believe.
Yet, doubt lingers.
At first, like everyone else, I believed that Jay knew more than what he was letting on; that perhaps someone else was also involved. But as the series progressed, I changed my mind.
You see, there were simply too many coincidences that stacked up against Adnan. Why did he buy a cell phone two days before the murder? Why, on the day of the murder, did he loan his cell phone and his car to Jay, a mere acquaintance he sometimes bought pot from? Why did he not remember anything about that day, even after the police called him the same evening to ask about Hae’s disappearance? Why did he write the word “kill” on a note? Why did he tell several eyewitnesses that he wanted a ride from Hae after school? Why did the police believe an African-American drug dealer over a golden boy with no prior record?
At the very least, it seems that both Jay and Adnan were involved. Since they did not know what the other’s testimony was, they could not be specific about their whereabouts. In the end, Jay ratted on Adnan, who could not come clean and betray his community.
Why do I believe this? Because, unlike Koenig, I believe that passion can be a powerful motivator. I do not buy that Adnan was not upset when Hae jilted him to begin a relationship with Don. In spite of his apparent nonchalance, I do not think that anyone can know exactly what went on inside his heart.
Serial will haunt me for years. The young girl in the story died a premature death; the podcast will never be entertainment for her family.
So is there anything we can learn from Serial? It is that that if you are in the kind of predicament Adnan was in, you need to have millions on hand to hire the best lawyers and plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. And if you are a girl like Hae, you need to be careful who you hang out with.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publitions.