In 1999, Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Maryland, went missing. When her body was found a month later, Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was arrested and convicted of strangling her.
Episode one of “Serial,” the latest podcast series from the creators of “This American Life,” begins with a prepaid call from an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility. It’s Adnan, 15 years after Hae went missing. He is set to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he claims he did not commit.
“Serial,” which has released three episodes since its premiere last week, reinvestigates the case. Each week, “Serial” will release a new episode, and public radio enthusiasts nationwide will linger in their driveways minutes after they arrive home to hear the latest discoveries. Sarah Koenig, a former producer for “This American Life,” hosts this gripping new podcast.
“For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999,” she says at the start of the first episode. The producers say the show won’t stop until they get to the bottom of the case, at which point they will move on to a new story.
The characters are rich and intriguing. We learn about Adnan and Hae’s forbidden romance — how they kept it a secret from his Islamic family and her Korean family. We learn how the court based Adnan’s conviction largely on the testimony of his friend Jay, who said he helped Adnan hide Hae’s body. But Adnan says he had no reason to kill Hae — he was at the library after school, he thinks.
It’s not surprising how hard it is for one not to remember exactly what they were doing one Wednesday afternoon 15 years ago. Unless, of course, they were killing someone.
Koenig brings us along on her investigation of Hae’s murder, admitting to confusion and sharing exciting leads. The style allows us to stumble through the story with her, as if we’re hearing Sherlock Holmes’ diary. What keeps the story thrilling is that someone, be it Adnan or a perpetrator who we haven’t been introduced to yet, is lying. Someone is a murderer.
After three episodes and a growing stack of questions, what is left is an intense desire to know the truth of what happened. This lingering feeling is captivating because the story is still being reported. According to Slate, the producers are still researching and producing episodes as they are being released.
Many will listen to “Serial” as pure entertainment, debating theories and deconstructing characters as if it’s season three of Breaking Bad. But the greater implications of this investigation have the potential to be life-changing. This case could take an innocent man out of prison or put a murderer behind bars: think “Thin Blue Line.”
This is just one case — one boy’s story of how the criminal justice system took over his life. Not every court case gets one of the best radio journalists to intensely scrutinize and investigate its merits and legitimacy. Most trials go on without national recognition or interest, but it’s no secret that the criminal justice system needs fixing.
In a recent New Yorker piece, reporter Jennifer Gonnerman tells the tragic story of a man who waited three years in a prison cell for his trial, only to have his court case thrown out. There are currently more than 2.4 million people incarcerated in the US, and in 2008 more than one in 100 adults in the US were in prison, a disproportionate number being African American.
“Serial” will likely delve further into issues of race and incarceration. But as the season goes on, it gives listeners a unique opportunity to humanize the players. As Adnan becomes more than just an incarceration statistic, hopefully this story can get us talking about who offends and why and whether locking a person being behind bars for years repairs the harm their crime caused. At the same time, we could be becoming very sympathetic toward a manipulative murderer.
Eventually, Koenig and listeners will have to step back and face the cruel reality that this story is captivating because a person’s life was lost. Part of the case put up against Adnan was that his relationship with Hae caused him to betray his Islamic family values. When they broke up, he lashed out with anger — or so the jury unanimously agreed.
As Koenig meticulously crafts the story for our ears, we are reminded of the importance of where a story begins and ends — what constitutes truth and how facts can be manipulated.
Humans visualize disparate facts in a narrative form — we see our world in stories. In a recent blog post, Koenig wrote about a note Adnan sent her last spring that included two graphs. Each plotted the price of tea at a different store. On first glance, it appeared that the prices fluctuated much more at one store. But in reality, the prices were the same, just plotted with different increments on the y-axis.
His clever analogy goes back to storytelling. How information is framed can drastically determine interpretation. One graph may have been convicted as guilty, the other as innocent.
We have to be wary of Koenig’s framing — she starts the story with Adnan, and we learn he was smart and well liked. What facts she decides to deliver and in what order will create the story we walk away with, however close to the truth it may be.
Podcasts give audiences the opportunity to ruminate on and talk about a theme. But instead of a week, we have a whole season to think and theorize. If the first three episodes were this juicy and raw, we can only imagine what is to come ahead. We should keep listening.