Has ‘Serial’ changed anything?

Adnan Syed in 1998. Photo: This American Life
Serial, the Public Radio version of “Who shot JR?” (ask your parents), has concluded its first season without us knowing who killed a young high school woman. It was groundbreaking podcasting in which This American Life alumnus Sarah Koenig spent the last several months changing the game by not providing us with the one thing mainstream journalism likes when it asks questions: answers.

Adnan Syed, the former boyfriend of Hae Min Lee, is still serving a life sentence for her killing. Koenig didn’t find a smoking gun. She found the power of the podcast.

That’s a little troubling to Rabia Chaudry, who turned Koenig on to Syed’s story. But, writing today on Time.com, she sees a greater good in the effort.

“What she did do successfully was blow wide open the idea of a fair criminal justice process,”Chaudry writes.

I’ve been asked a number of times if I regret taking the case to her. On that count, I say absolutely not. As disheartening as it is that no smoking gun was found, the case has ironically been brought back to life because of the mud, not in spite of it. If reasonable doubt existed 15 years ago, it abounds now.

Other attorneys blogged about the inconsistencies in the investigation, and in the trial. National organizations have come forward, compelled by the religious bigotry that the state injected into the case. The Innocence Project is pushing forward with testing DNA evidence. Volunteer lawyers and firms have stepped up to advocate for Adnan and develop a grassroots campaign for him. Old classmates and friends, and even old lawyers, of Adnan have come forward to help. The post-conviction appeal has gotten new life thanks to the Court of Special Appeals taking an interest and because of Koenig’s interview with Asia McClain. And I’ll continue to blog, sharing documents and information, updating people on Adnan and his case.

Not all is lost then. We are back to where we were before Koenig, before Serial. Back in court, but this time with millions of eyes watching. It’s nearly impossible to tell how all of the legal machinations will bear out, there are many ways this could go. But it is going, slowly but surely, somewhere.

Chaudry has been posting to her blog after each episode. She hasn’t yet posted a response to this week’s finale, which was posted this morning.

At the New Yorker, Sarah Larson echoed Chaudry, writing that our system is based on something we cannot define: “reasonable doubt.”

We convict people who haven’t been proved guilty because we feel that they are guilty. We feel that they’re guilty in part because they’re sitting in a courtroom having been accused of a terrible crime. In cases like this, the burden often ends up on proving the accused’s innocence—not innocent until proven guilty. And Adnan Syed is just the tip of the iceberg.

Many dozens of defendants are convicted or take pleas in the face of similarly inconclusive evidence. Adnan Syed, unlike many people who are convicted, was well-off; he was popular and beloved, with an incredible amount of support from his family, his mosque, his school. He had a passionate and respected attorney whom he still respects and appreciates, long after her disbarment and her death. Thousands of others do not have such support. Innocent or not, they are even easier to convict.

But Sarah Lustbader, a public defender in New York, says Serial blew the chance to show unfairness in the justice system. Writing in the Washington Post today, she says prosecutors aren’t interested in the pursuit of justice.

I admire those remarkable prosecutors who — even in offices with the most adversarial of cultures — “do justice” by voluntarily weakening their cases. One such prosecutor recently took it upon herself to reinvestigate a very serious allegation based on information that I had offered in court. Within a day, she decided that the serious charge against my client was unsubstantiated and that the evidence instead pointed to a lesser offense. I discussed this new information with my client, and we reached an agreement acceptable to everyone; he was released from jail the next day. But those prosecutors are the exception. Criminal defendants shouldn’t have to hope for an exceptional prosecutor to get a fair shake.

Serial’s biggest contribution may not be in the world of justice at all. It ‘ll be in journalism. At the least, as Koenig told NPR this afternoon, it’s considering whether it makes sense to continue the illusion that reporters have no thoughts or feelings on the stories they cover.

“I think that’s fake,” she said. “I think that if journalists, reporters who spend a lot of time on a story, are honest with themselves, we all have feelings about our subjects — I mean, unless you’re a robot.”