A Few Thoughts on the Serial Podcast

Serial is a podcast spin-off of This American Life, and this particular version of the series investigates the 15 year old murder conviction of Adnan Syed. He was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, and the podcasts detail Sarah Koenig’s year-long investigation into the case.

I don’t typically read, watch, or listen to true crime stories because they either feel too formulaic (48 Hours Investigates) or too messy (this podcast). I like crime fiction both because it organizes messy stories of crimes and because sometimes it’s clear what really happened. In the eight episodes I’ve listened to so far, the holes in the investigation, the holes in the evidence, and the inconsistencies in witness statements make it seem like the task of finding out what really happened is impossible. Nevertheless, I’m in the Adnan-is-innocent camp despite Koenig’s attempted approach of being impartial. The trial excerpts and other interviews I’ve heard on the podcast make me see all kinds of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, but, of course, I’m saying that without having been a witness to the six week trial. There is a lot that this podcast leaves out, but I’ve jotted down a few thought in general about the series:

  1. Re-investigating a crime that happened fifteen years ago is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to track down witnesses, it’s hard for those witnesses to remember back that far, it’s hard to find out what evidence has not been destroyed.
  2. Serial’s investigation must have been quite costly. The collect calls from Adnan in prison alone have to be pricey.
  3. As a long-time fan of Laura Lippman and David Simon, lots of the Baltimore County locations are familiar, including Leakin Park.
  4. I don’t have time to go down the Reddit rabbithole of people trying to solve the case. I do, however, recommend the blog of Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Adnan’s family who brought the case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.
  5. My favorite episode so far included a long conversation with Deirdre Enright of the University of Virginia Innocence Project Clinic. Her years of experience reviewing criminal case files was much more interesting to me than Koenig’s story of her thoughts about the case during the course of her investigation. I wonder what the clinic’s review of the file will yield.
  6. I’m not sure what the ending of the series will be: will it be more about Koenig or more about Syed.

All in all, I recommend this podcast.


13 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the Serial Podcast

  1. This is really interesting, Rebecca! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I often wonder what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in those ‘cold case’ investigations. I’m sure that, messy and inconsistent as it is, this series probably shows a lot of what really happens.

    • Thanks, Margot! This is a journalist doing an investigation (and outsourcing parts to other people), and since the original case and appeals have gone one for so long, there are lots of things to dig into.

  2. Not the kind of thing I would follow but it does sound interesting. I guess I like crime fiction because it usually avoids the messiness of real life investigations, as you point out. It does seem like it would be really hard for witnesses to remember things from long ago, since it is hard enough when a crime just happened.

    • Thanks, Tracy. The evidence and statements are really patchy after this amount of time, and it’s hard to tell what’s a lie and what’s been forgotten, which is why she can draw out the story for so long. I’m curious how she’ll wrap it up.

  3. I always have a problem with these things because, as you say, I haven’t heard the evidence from the trial. Journalists are under no obligation to show anything that doesn’t support their case, and it must be hard for them to really remain impartial even if they try.

    • Interesting points. I’m not too suspicious of Koenig’s ethics, but I do think she’s limited in her reporting because she’s broadcasting the story instead of writing it. I feel like she could get into more detail if she were writing. A book that does this really well is Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills.

  4. Rebecca have you been reading my thoughts? You’ve encapsulated them so well! Like you I don’t like the messiness of true crime so stay away from it generally. But I am a huge consumer of podcasts and I have been hooked by this one. We even have the same favourite episode. If not the Adnan is innocent camp I am definitely in the “there’s reasonable doubt” camp but of course as you say it’s so hard to re-investigate a case from this distance.

    The whole thing has made me think about my love of crime fiction – is it the search for an unattainable dream of perfect solutions every time? Is it really fantasy?

    • Thanks, Bernadette: I’m glad I’m not alone in my reactions to the show.

      As for the appeal of crime fiction, I think I like books in general and crime novels in particular because there is a beginning, middle, and end unlike life. But I do read plenty of books with unsatisfying endings as well.
      This particular podcast highlights how much police procedurals and legal procedurals gloss over, which is interesting in itself. (Interrogation techniques, especially the untaped pre-interviews Koenig talked about in this week’s episode, are on my mind.) So much more to discuss, especially as this wraps up!

  5. Thanks Rebecca. I don’t think I’ve ever been drawn to to listen to podcasts and I’ve never been a fan of true crime either. I remember reading Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule years and years ago. I’m drawn to crime fiction to see justice served even if it is idealistic. I’ve always been fascinated by the process and of course, I am drawn to the characters, especially if they are drawn really well. I think some writers do a good job of showing how people make bad decisions or exploring the path that led them to the “bad place” they are in. Back to the podcast, I would think it would be very difficult to determine one’s innocence after such a long lapse in time. If crime fiction has taught me anything it’s that the justice system is severely flawed. But then again, I don’t need books to tell me that. I can see that in real life. Sorry for rambling.

    • Pick a system, any system, and you can find weird processes/cases/injustices, and the stakes are high not just in the criminal justice system but in healthcare, employment situations, or any industry regulated by the government. I think this particular story is so interesting because it’s an antidote to crime shows or news pieces about criminal cases and appeals: there are a lot of procedural hoops to jump through that take years. It’s hard to find stories that are this long and detailed and that’s why it stands out to me.

      And thanks for bringing up characters, Keishon: one glaring omission in the podcasts is Hae Min, the murder victim. There’s one episode that features excerpts from her diary, which was part of the trial, but Koenig doesn’t interview her family at all, and I don’t remember hearing any interviews with her friends. (I catch myself zoning out in podcasts/audio books sometimes). I’ve invested so much time in this show I’ll see it through, but I still prefer crime novels to true crime stories.

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