So, I have a new addiction that doesn’t supplant making ridiculous stuffies, it just gives me something to do while I make them.
I listen to Serial, a spinoff podcast from This American Life. Serial reexamines the 1999 murder of a high school student, and the investigation that lead to the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, who is currently serving life for her murder. The show is strangely suspenseful, and highly addictive. I say strangely because so far, the show hasn’t presented an alternative theory as to what happened, that is to say, the show is not exactly treating this case as a who done it. Sarah Koenig, the journalist investigating the case and hosting the show, seems to want Adnan, the convicted ex-boyfriend, to be innocent, however, that’s not her thesis. The most she has said about her own instinct is that when she met him, she was surprised by his big brown eyes, and how could a guy who looks like that be a killer. Her next comment was something like, idiotic, I know. But, that’s really what the show is about – how could this guy, who presented himself to the community as a model, yet typical kid, who played football, and track, who had a job as an EMT, who was kind of a charming player with the girls, and at times a stoner, do this? Or maybe he didn’t – and the “maybe he didn’t” is kind of a side note.
So, to start the series, she looks into the alibi that wasn’t presented at his trial. But she didn’t start there to show that he couldn’t have done it, because he had a solid alibi. She started there to show how hard it is start asking what happened, who did what when, where were you, when your best historians are teenagers with inherently faulty memories, asked to account for 21 minutes of an ordinary day. Then, she looks at the motive, basically invented by detectives and the prosecutors to make sense of the whole thing. And when she is unsatisfied with the flawed theory of motive, she has to look further. And each episode is just that – let’s take a look – let’s look at the witness, at time line presented by the state, let’s just take a look, let’s see.
The problem with this format, I suppose, if you’re looking at it from a perspective of something other than good storytelling, perhaps from the perspective of accurately reporting an event, is that while Koenig purports to be reporting the story as she goes, that she doesn’t know exactly what future episodes will bring because she’s still investigating, still recording episodes, that’s only partially true – she’s withholding information from the audience purposefully to tell a more suspenseful story. And, she’s also highlighting evidence that is important, at least to her, saying things like, “remember this later, it will be important.” I’m fine with that. This holding back of little nuggets, of throwing out little sneak peaks at what’s coming next, that’s what makes this format, this podcast compelling – good storytelling. If this were a current case, and she were a journalist just reporting the facts, this form of storytelling would be misleading. But, that’s just it, it’s storytelling, not reporting. Likewise, if Koenig were presenting her story to the ultimate factfinder, the jury, this type of storytelling would be suspect. A juror should expect, in opening statements, to hear an outline of the whole case, a roadmap for the trial. Trials are not supposed to be based on the element of surprise. Surprise witnesses are the stuff of t.v., not real trials. That’s not to say that things don’t take surprising turns, but those surprising turns are usually not what evidence comes in, but how it comes in – witnesses on paper are very different from witnesses in person. So yes, certainly when you see a trial live, there may be an a ah ha moment – a moment that rings true and resonated with the 12 people in the box. But, this is a radio show, and the premise of the show was never to solve a crime, or influence an actual factfinder in the case, or safeguard due process. And, I guess that’s why it’s suspenseful – to me at least. Adnan was convicted, and convicted pretty quickly, based on the testimony of essentially one witness, and some possibly corroborative decorations, like cellphone tower records. What was that ah ha moment? What was it that really resonated with the 12 people who were chosen to decide his fate, that despite his public face, and his upstanding reputation, they were able to see the face of a guy who could put his hands around the neck of his girlfriend, and strangle her in such a brutal fashion.
Of course, there’s the side issue in the case of bad lawyering. His lawyer was ultimately disbarred, and those who believe in Adnan’s innocence think that not only did she do a bad job, she actually threw the case. And that might be true – but it seems to me, bad lawyering aside, and that’s not to say I don’t think that bad lawyering can be the beginning and the end of a case – it can. But, the bottomline is, he’s already lost his ineffective assistance of counsel claims, and to chalk this case up to just bad lawyering, doesn’t answer any of the fundamental questions about humanity that the show is asking. So, putting bad lawyering aside, the bottom line was that the jury believed the state’s witness, Jay, a co-conspirator who, if you believe the state’s case like the 12 people in the box, helped Adnan dispose of her body. Why did they believe him?
I keep listening to find out.
Because I’m not listening to find out if Sarah Koenig comes to the conclusion that he’s actually innocent. That would ultimately be heartbreaking, because claims of actual innocence don’t get you back into court, unless of course she turns up some new evidence, although it doesn’t appear that’s where this show is going. Or, Koenig could come to the conclusion that he’s actually guilty, and the jury got it right. And what does that do to all of the people who have stood by him for years – that one journalist thinks, that in her opinion, he’s guilty. And that will be some conversation with Adnan on the prison phone, “I think you did it.” “Ok, I understand, but I didn’t.” That would be wholly unsatisfying.
But, in the end, I think she will most likely come to the conclusion, it’s really impossible to know, his trial was unfair, and rife with errors, the witnesses were unreliable, memories 20 years later are faulty, and you can’t know what a person is capable of doing from their public face. And is it enough, to say to yourself you just don’t know? In this kind of case, where there isn’t a confession, or DNA, or an eyewitness, or anything like that, can you believe someone to be innocent on faith alone, when you’ve failed to solve the crime? I don’t think she can – or she wouldn’t have taken on this project. In any event, I’m curious.
And, I’m hooked.
Just thought I’d share.