Serial: Where Are We, and How Did We Get There?

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Hello! I’m Chris Chafin, occasional Brooklyn Magazine contributor and podcast obsessive. I have actually been to a podcasting convention! I also worked in radio for a number of years, and do writing things that involve telling a somewhat complex story. I am also always right about everything! I think all of this makes me an ideal person to guide you through Serial, which I’ll be doing on a weekly basis right here!

Serial is, of course, the murder-mystery podcast that has somewhat surprisingly captured the national imagination and is currently dominating the iTunes chart like a really mean older brother (JOHN! I said I DON’T LIKE IT when you spin me!). Put together by the team behind This American Life, it is simultaneously engrossing, fascinating, infuriating, and absolute proof that if your news magazine runs long enough, it will end up solely focusing on murders (cf, 48 Hours Mystery). 

Before we move on to the new episodes, I wanted to quickly run through all the old ones. This is sort of a crazy goal for a show that’s already filled hours of radio and hundreds of pages on Reddit. How can you quickly run through a twisting murder case that’s stumped 15 years of investigators? Well, honestly, this probably won’t be super quick. But I’ll do my best! Where are we, and how did we get here?

Episode 01: The Alibi

Everything is new! It’s in this episode where we meet all the major players, and hear for the first time the things that will be recurring motifs for the rest of the show: the tinkling piano music by The Unicorns’ Nick Thornburn, the pleasant/ominous sound of that automated voice saying “This is a . . . Global Tel Link call from . . .” and that guy with the cartoonish Mario-and-Luigi-style Italian accent who says “use-a-Mail Chimp.”

Serial follows the murder of Hae Min Lee, a popular high school senior from Baltimore who disappeared after school one January day in 1999. This happened on a Wednesday, which was also the day of an extremely rare ice storm in Maryland that shut schools for the rest of the week. The following Monday was Martin Luther King Day. All this means it was almost a week before the gravity of her disappearance struck her community. Eventually, her body was found (more on that later), and not very long after, her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder. Adnan, too, was a popular high school senior, on the track team who got good grades. It was hard for many people to believe he did it.

Well, did he?

“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.” This is how Sarah Koenig, longtime TAL producer (her 2009 story about her father’s grudges from the advertising industry in the 1960s is amazing and well worth a listen), introduces the first episode. It’s got everything that’s going to make this show great, right there. She’s referring to the hour after school when Hae was murdered—a time for which Adnan can’t entirely account and is in a lot of ways the reason he’s currently serving a life sentence. This is weighty stuff! It would be easy to be overly serious or tantalizingly over-dramatize this point. But Koenig reduces it to its relatable essence: where was this high school kid for an hour, 15 years ago? Or, as she quickly clarifies, where was he for the 21 minutes (roughly between 2:15 and 2:36 PM) during which police think Hae was killed? And, she adds, this is actually really hard to figure out! Could you say where you were for 20 minutes, 15 years ago? Or even six weeks ago? Barring something dramatic happening, or doing something for which you have a receipt or an Instagram location tag, you’d probably have to resort to “probablys” and “usuallys,” which is all Adnan is able to do, too. Maybe track practice, or maybe the library, he says. “I probably would have gotten something to eat,” because it was the end of the day during Ramadan, and Adnan, who is Muslim, would have been anxious to break his fast, he tells Koening. “Then we probably would have smoked some weed.” Adnan also smoked pot regularly with some friends, something that plays a relatively big role in the story.

The problem is, all this vague stuff isn’t really good enough to get you off of a murder charge. Especially when there’s someone —the “we” in that above account—telling the police that you are the murderer. That’s Adnan’s friend—or maybe “friend,” it’s not really clear—Jay, who did just that, in a taped confession to Baltimore police. He not only fingered Adnan, but laid out a timeline of the killing, describing exactly when and how the body was buried. He even knew where the shovels had gone afterwards.

It’s doubly unhelpful if your lawyer is not doing her best work, perhaps on purpose. Adnan was represented by Cristina Gutierrez, a well-known Baltimore defense attorney, who was disbarred barely two years after Adnan’s conviction. Among the almost two dozen complaints against her that resulted in her being forbidden to practice law, there was a common theme: intentionally prolonging cases through various means to increase the fee she was paid. Adnan’s family thinks something similar might have happened here—that Gutierrez intentionally tanked the case, expecting to win on appeal. The idea that she was intentionally not following leads or questioning prosecution witnesses hard enough will be a recurring theme in the show. Gutierrez isn’t around to answer; she died in 2004.

The knocks against Gutierrez start here. A classmate of Adnan’s, Asia McClain, claims to have seen him in a library during the time the murder was committed, but did not testify at trial. In fact, she was never even contacted by the police or Adnan’s lawyers. Why? It’s impossible to say. Adnan later hired a different lawyer, who had a private detective find Asia and ask her to testify at an appeal, which she refused to do. She even went as far as calling the state, refuting her earlier claim to have seen Adnan in the library.

Koenig finds Asia in this episode. When she hears how crucial her testimony might have been for Adnan, she sounds surprised. “Yeah,” she says, sighing. It’s a mixture of confusion, guilt, and resignation. “I trust the court system to do its due diligence,” she explains. She assumed that if no one contacted her, and that if Adnan was convicted, he must be guilty, and therefore wanted nothing to do with the case. All these years later, her memory is still clear: she saw him in the library at that time.

Somehow the entire podcast doesn’t grind to a halt here, having more or less disproven the prosecution’s timeline. Maybe he went to kill Hae afterwards. Maybe the timeline was just slightly off. Maybe Asia is mistaken, or lying. There’s a lot more investigating to do.

Episode 02: The Breakup

The first episodes was a double-sized one, and also very important! I’ll try to move through the rest of these a bit more quickly.

In episode two, we get deeper inside Adnan. It’s tempting to say “the character of Adnan,” which is true in that we’re talking about his character, in the adjective sense. But it also reveals something of a fault in Serial; while these people are characters in our story, who are introduced, discussed, and often given surprising revelations as if they’re fictional, they’re not. Adnan is a real guy, really serving life in prison, for the murder of another real person, Hae Min Lee. This sometimes gets lost, but is helpful to keep in mind.

So, what really happened between Adnan and Hae? In short, none of their friends or teachers thought that Adnan or Hae had taken the breakup very hard. They were both seeing other people by the time of the murder, and the prosecution’s claims of jealousy and control by Adnan mostly revolve around a few stray comments from Hae’s diary, which also contains plenty of stuff about them being “deeper and deeper in love” (as well as a funny story about Adnan’s mom dragging him out of prom, which he wasn’t allowed to go to, and where he’d been voted Prom King). There’s also Jay, who told the police that Adnan had said he couldn’t believe that Hae had broken up with him, that she’d broken his heart, and pledged to kill her. Then again, he’s also trying to convince the police that Adnan’s the murderer, so I personally take that with a pretty huge grain of salt.

The prosecution also tried to make a lot of the supposedly secret nature of Hae and Adnan’s relationship. It was indeed secret! But according to Adnan and many of his friends, this wasn’t really unusual in their Muslim community. Dating was officially forbidden, as was drinking and smoking, but there was a somewhat tacit understanding that all the kids were doing all those things—they just respectfully kept it out of view of their parents.

This is perhaps a good place to talk about Adnan. He does many phone interviews with Koenig, and sounds intelligent and kind. He’s relatable, even after 15 years in prison. It’s hard to imagine that any of us could hold up any better after that long. “I often forget where he is,” says Koenig, when the prison system interrupts them to say their time is running out. He sounds like your friend, your brother. It’s easy to forget that he’s serving life in prison for murder. But, as Asia said in the last episode, sometimes people are totally normal, but do something in a few minutes that they regret for the rest of their lives.

Episode 03: Leakin Park

We now talk about the odd location and extremely odd circumstances under which Hae’s body was found in Leakin Park. For those not from Baltimore (myself included), the park is apparently an infamously bad spot. Koenig relays a joke that’s apparently common: if you go to bury a body in Leakin Park, you’ll find someone else’s body while you’re digging.

Hae’s body was found by a man who Koenig refers to as “Mr. S.” As it turns out, he has several convictions for streaking, of all things (what is it, the 70s?), including one from just two days before Hae’s murder, in which he jumped in front of a police car, and waved his naked genitals at it. He claims to have found the body while wandering in the woods, looking for somewhere to pee. This, like, almost makes sense, except that Hae’s body was behind a tree, very hidden unless you were looking for it. Koening plays tape of a medical examiner who arrived on the scene but couldn’t find it, even with police pointing it out to him. Why was Mr. S wandering the woods? Why was he looking at the ground (my pet theory is that maybe he was with a prostitute)?

This episode also includes a look at the detectives on the case—Ritz and Mcgillivray—and the way they work with suspects. This is on display in the audio of them questioning Mr. S. It’s actually a relief to hear, because as soon as it’s revealed that some mystery sex offender is the person who found the body, you want to shout, “Well OBVIOUSLY he’s the killer!” The detectives seem to have the same thought, and submit him to some pretty tough questioning. But Mr. S is calm, and his story hardly changes at all. But he fails a polygraph! But then, he passes a later polygraph. 

Still, he seems like he’s hiding something. Like maybe how he heard about the body? His sister-in-law, as it turns out, was one of Hae’s teachers at Woodlawn, and her husband lived next door to Adnan, when he was just a little kid. Koenig tracks them all down: Mr. S didn’t know anything about the murder, they say, and Adnan seemed like a nice kid.

Episode 04: Inconsistencies

An Asian man, likely in his late teens, called the police anonymously to tell them to investigate Hae’s ex boyfriend. He then calls back, saying the ex told a friend that if they ever broke up, he kill her and drive her car into a lake. While Koenig says no one has ever figured out who made this call, the description of the caller certainly fits Jay, who has been more than happy to cooperate with the police and implicate Adnan all along. Surely Koenig sees this, too. Maybe it’s what she’s referring to when she says that she has guesses which she “can’t responsibly say out loud.”

Much of the episode revolves around Jay’s story, and how much it changed between various interviews with the cops, and how it continues to change at trial. Had Adnan dug the hole in which they put Hae’s body, or Adnan and Jay together? Had Adnan mentioned the murder for the first time that day, or days earlier? Had they started planning it the night before, or had Jay been blindsided with a request to help bury a body on the day of the murder? Had they gone to a state park to smoke weed after buying the body, or not? Had Adnan showed the body to Jay in the trunk of his car on a side street near a drug market, or at a Best Buy? Jay tells each if these versions to cops or lawyers at various times.

It’s at this point I have to say my own personal theory, which seems glaringly obvious. It’s so supported by the show that it seems crazy that it hasn’t been explicitly stated, even all the way through the end of episode seven (the newest episode as I write this). Maybe legal concerns are holding Koenig back. Maybe she feels she can’t make accusations she can’t support. Maybe she’s saving a bombshell for a later episode. What I think is this: Jay is framing Adnan. For some unknown reason, he is pinning a murder in which he was obviously involved on a casual acquaintance of his. Maybe he was mad at Adnan. Maybe he and a friend got in a fight with Hae and killed her. Maybe he killed her specifically to frame Adnan. I honestly don’t know. What I so know is that to this point, there’s lots of physical evidence that Jay was involved (including his own confession). And Adnan? Nothing.

Episode 05: Route Talk

Could Adnan have possibly left school, driven to Best Buy, and murdered Hae all in 21 minutes? Yes, as it turns out. Koenig and another producer, Dana Chivvis, who makes a very charming appearance in this episode, re-enact the crime and find they can in fact do it! With one minute to spare! Adnan seems very dispirited to hear this, and seems a bit unconvinced. I have to say that Koenig seems a bit flip here, and that some things cannot possibly have been as quick as she thinks (especially strangling another person to death). Though, in fairness, I have never strangled anyone! Maybe it is actually relatively fast, I don’t know.

Episode 06: The Case Against Adnan Syed

It’s in this episode that we start to see Koenig’s instincts as a storyteller start to obscure her instincts as a journalist, or really as a person.

The episode starts with her discussing a call Adnan got the afternoon Hae went missing, where the police ask him if he knows where Hae is. According to Adnan, he said no, hung up the phone, and didn’t really give it much thought, beyond, “Hae is going to be in so much trouble when she gets home.” Remember, this is a girl who’s recently dumped him, and is seeing some new guy she met at her job at the mall. This is a community where the parents are so protective that they show up to drag you out of homecoming, because they consider it immodest to be at a dance. If I was Adnan, I might also think, wow, Hae’s parents are really mad! She’s going to be in trouble and let it go.

Not Koenig. She questions Adnan again and again on why he didn’t call or page Hae after his call from the police. “Hae’s friend Aiesha said she was paging her like crazy,” Koenig adds. I don’t doubt that. I also don’t doubt that teenaage girls and teenage boys react to stressful situations differently. Where one might obsessively engage, the other might ignore the situation and hope it resolved itself. Or maybe he was just distracted by what everyone says was an historic ice storm. Honestly who knows?

The rest of this episode revolves around making sense of Adnan’s cell records, especially the supposed “smoking gun,” the Niesha Call. This is a little tedious to explain, but essentially the idea is that only Adnan could have made this call, and judging by the cell phone towers his phone pinged, he was not where he said he was—he was near where the body was being buried.

This was central to the prosecution’s case, because they used it to construct a theory of the case. Koenig has no theory—she’s just trying to figure out the truth. This is very hard, and boils down to things like, why did you call so and so at such time 15 years ago? Adnan really doesn’t know. At times during this, Koenig can seem like she’s lost in a paranoid haze. She wants everything to make sense, and “I dunno” is an unacceptable answer, despite being the explanation for about 75% of my actions, personally. She sees master criminals everywhere. She suspects everyone of being in some kind of conspiracy. She’s in too deep.

Episode 07: The Opposite of the Prosecution

A lifeline! In this episode, Koenig finds a Virgil to lead her through the twisting underworld of this case, Deidre Enright of The Innocence Project, a law group dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted. She pulls Koenig out of her more fanciful reveries, as typified by this great exchange about Adnan.

KOENIG: I just go back to, why can’t you account for this day, of all days? You knew it was an important day! You got a call from a cop, asking where your ex-girlfriend was. Surely you must have gone over it before six weeks had passed. Surely.

ENRIGHT: I don’t have that reaction. But I see what you’re saying. 

KOENIG: And then I just am aware that, what if he is this amazing sociopath and I’m just being played? I mean, I don’t get that sense, but he’s really charming, he’s really smart, he’s really funny, and you’re like, yeah, he could be a sociopath! 

ENRIGHT: But see, here’s where I go with that. In my 26 years of doing this, I pray for a sociopath. Because I never get those guys. I get innocent guys, and guys who are like, me and me friends smoked crack for three days and we drank five bottles of whatever, and then we got a plan. That’s who I get, all. the. time. So the odds of you getting the charming sociopath—you’re just not that lucky.

This is everything Koenig needs: a dose of reality. This is not a movie, or a novel. It’s a bunch of teenagers, in the 1990s, just living normal lives. They were not criminal masterminds, plotting revenge on their enemies. And even if they were—and those people do exist!—they’re usually not very good at keeping their stories straight for 15 years. I mean, Jay couldn’t keep his story straight for a few weeks, which is pretty telling.

Much of this episode is Koenig recapping the case for Enright, who plainly finds it fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, (dun DUN) that she assigns the case to her students! Yes, The Innocence Project is taking on the case! They may get Adnan a new trial! That’s their business! Further, all the lawyers are appalled at the lack of physical evidence: none of them think Adnan is guilty. I’d love to follow them in a separate, How To Get Away With Murder-ish podcast!

Alas, we bid them adieu at the end of this episode.

So, where are we? In some ways, not too far from where we started: a girl was killed, and we really have no idea who might have done it. It could be the man who was convicted, or any or a number of other people. In another sense, a lot has changed. We know a lot about Adnan and Hae, and a bit about their wider circle. We feel real empathy for Adnan (or at least I do, as I guess is fairly obvious). Will we ever figure out who really did it? Will The Innocence Project get Adnan a new trial? And, most importantly, WHAT IS UP WITH JAY?

Here’s hoping we find out in the eight episode! Which you can download RIGHT NOW.


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