Serial: The Podcast Sensation

serial-social-logoI was a bit behind with Serial, the podcast following a journalist examining the case of Adnan Syed, who has been in prison for 15 years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The podcast ran from October to December and I started listening in January, but at least I could listen to them consecutively instead of having to wait for the next piece of the puzzle. It made great commute material.

Regardless, I’ve listened to it all now and it was fascinating. As a local newspaper journalist I’ve been to court a fair few times and generally understand how the system works, but obviously that’s in the UK rather than the US and I don’t really see what happens, if anything, after conviction, or behind the scenes during a trial.

As a case study into the justice system, this is inspired and a very clever way to do it. Serial has revitalised the podcast genre and proved how it can work because this is something that was better in this format than it would have been in print, and it wouldn’t exactly have been possible or worthwhile for TV. We can hear people tell their stories in their own words, from Adnan speaking on the phone from prison, to the potential alibi witness, to the star witness changing his story in police interviews and in court.

The podcast also allows the case to be examined in more detail than even a series of articles would have allowed and means the presenter, Sarah Koenig, can talk more colloquially and with feeling than would be possible in other mediums.

Some have declared disappointment that there was not a conclusion in the case either way in the final episode and I initially felt the same but upon further thought I decided that was ridiculous. This was an exploration of the justice system and proved that crime, and the evidence, both DNA and circumstantial, and witnesses available for each crime, is rarely as clear cut as many people may think or hope.

To me, Koenig did an admirable job in laying out all the evidence – as much as she could gather, including stuff not found by the police or defence 15 years ago – for the public to think about and understand for themselves. Unfortunately for Syed (or fortunately for society, depending on if he is actually innocent or not) the jury in his trial considered the patchy evidence, which basically relied on one witness’ word and a non-existent alibi, enough. Another jury may have had more reasonable doubt that prevented convention

Koenig summed it up well in the final episode: “It’s not enough, to me, to send anyone to prison for life.” This was a fascinating examination into true crime and a novel way of communicating the story. Hopefully the show’s creators will be able to come back present another fascinating case – or maybe they’ll have inspired some clever copycats to fill the void.

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