By Freya Strasburg
“For the last year, I have spent every working day trying to find out where a seventeen year old kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999”. This is the first sentence that listeners hear from reporter Sarah Koenig in her podcast named “Serial”, one of the years most popular podcasts. While new listeners won’t realize the importance of this statement until later, a seasoned “Serial” follower understands that this sentence represents one of the major themes that is discussed throughout the podcast, ambiguity.
“Serial” is “one story told week by week” about a now 34-year-old man named Adnan Syed who was sentenced to life in prison when he was nineteen years old for murdering his ex girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Throughout the 12 podcast episodes, Koenig explains the case against Syed to listeners, and tries to uncover the truth about what happened the day that eighteen year old Hae Min Lee went missing. What listeners immediately understand from the first episode is the lack of physical evidence present in Syed’s trial. In fact, there was no physical evidence tested or brought forward in the trial, which is one of the reasons why Koenig has spent so much time trying to nail down specifics from that day almost fifteen years ago.
As the podcast develops, Koenig tells listeners how the entire trial rested upon the unreliable testimony of one man, Jay Wilds. I say unreliable because his story changed three times from the initial interview to the second trial (the first one ended in a mistrial), and just changed again in a recent interview with “First Look” magazine. Koenig spends a majority of her time trying to uncover the truth in his side of the story because he was the star witness, and the reason why many of the jurors decided to convict Syed.
“There are tons of pieces of evidence like this” states Koenig referring to the mounds of conflicting witness testimony apparent throughout this trial. And although some of the podcast can get very detailed and and technical at times, she does very good job of making it understandable to the common listener.
While the point of the podcast is to raise awareness for the case, it also touches upon some greater issues about race and the American legal system. One of the major recurring themes throughout the podcast is government corruption. From lack of DNA testing to shady court proceedings and to even shadier plea deals (Jay, who admitted to being involved in the crime, never went to jail), the listeners are given a glimpse into the real inner workings of the Baltimore police departments and courts back in 1999. Sadly, much of this still exists today, which is evident in the pushback that Syed’s appeal attorneys are receiving from the state of Maryland about testing old DNA evidence to prove his innocence. Koenig does a stellar job of showing how a lot of the big unanswerable questions that arise in this case are due to the questionable tactics used by the state detectives and prosecutors.
However, one aspect that Koenig fails to bring up is how truly unfair Syed’s prison sentence was. This is one aspect of the court system that is not publicly addressed in the media, and affects thousands of children nationwide. In fact, America is the only country in the world that gives life sentences to minors. Other countries view these underaged criminals as capable of changing both the way they think and their emotional behavior. Although Syed was convicted at age nineteen, he was accused of committing the murder at age seventeen, so therefore he was still tried as a minor. Koenig implies this with her repeated use of the word “kid” when referring to Seyad even though the issue is never directly addressed. Although time constraints probably account for that, I do believe that this would have been an interesting topic for Koenig to have explored.
Overall, the podcast was well done on every level, from the outstanding music to the great writing. It provides ordinary people a glimpse at how confusing a seemingly simple murder case can be. I would definitely recommend listening to it, as it is a truly exceptional story.
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