As National Public Radio (NPR) announces a second season of Serial, the podcast that focuses on a potential case of miscarriage of justice, we look at the possibility of a retrial for Adnan Syed and how the podcast is shaping the world of journalism, the mainstream media and the very roots of the US Court system.
If you are struggling for conversation this week, step into any legal office or talk to anyone studying law and mention the name "Adnan Syed". Not only is there a good chance that the person will know who you are talking about, but will follow up your question with a hundred of their own.
"Did he do it? Do you think he got a fair trial?" and countless other questions will be thrown at you as the Serial debate, which has raged across the world (and Curated Towers), is discussed.
Sadly, these are questions that we can not answer, and that those listening to Serial can merely speculate. Although we may never know, Serial has inspired a generation of online detectives, got the world talking about the case concerning the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, and raised questions over the future of the man who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
So what is it about Serial that makes the case in question so compelling? It appears to be similar to many other cases. There was a motive for the murder (Lee initiated the break-up), an eyewitness claimed to have helped Syed bury Lee's body and phone records backing up the prosecution's case. The evidence and statements taken against Syed were enough to find him guilty of the murder and close the case, or so it seemed...
Serial's Sarah Koenig attempts to piece together the veracity of the case, leading to questions about whether Syed's conviction was justified or a possible miscarriage of justice. She starts from scratch, piecing together a timeline of the events leading up to the murder and the subsequent police investigation. She then looks at the case in depth, unraveling potential weaknesses in the case and errors in Syed's defence. For example, the defence lawyer failed to conduct interviews with potential alibis and did not ask for forensic evidence to be carried out. New evidence also comes to light that seems as though it could prove that the wrong man is serving life in a US State prison.
The new evidence uncovered and the draw of public interest in the case has, without a doubt, been created by Serial, again showing that journalists are often the last line of defence for those who may be a victim of a miscarriage of justice. The popularity of Serial was unprecedented. The podcast surged to the top of the Itunes charts and remained there for weeks, raising awareness of the case and Syed's plight to clear his name, having always claimed his innocence.
Despite this increased awareness in the case and the new evidence, the current law in the US is very much against the idea of a retrial. Under current legislation, a case will only be reheard if it raises a serious legal issue or mistake. Similar to the UK, the US appeal courts will only very rarely, if ever, consider a case that has already been appealed and seen other post conviction proceedings. Syed has already been found guilty, he has had his case listened to, he has stood in front of a jury, he has appealed the decision post conviction, and the verdict remains the same. Although many have their doubts over the case, which is covered in the Serial podcast, Syed has been through the process time and time again, and the verdict has remained.
In the US it is difficult to reverse any decision made by the courts, even the death penalty. Furthermore it is important to remember that in the case regarding the death of Hae Min Lee, no new evidence that directly proves Syed's innocence has been found. There is no new DNA evidence that points to another killer, there has been no hair strand or samples found that directly remove Syed as the main culprit.
It could be argued that Serial implies Syed is innocent of committing the murder. The eyewitness is time and time again described as being unreliable. Holes are poked in testimonies, and other evidence is presented in such a way that suggests innocence. This is done by taking the reader back to basics. Serial strips back everything that was known about the case and goes over each step, piece by piece with the reader. This technique has long been used in investigative journalism. Stead, Capote and countless others have taken their reader on a journey revolving around them.
Koenig admits that the success of Serial is through not doing anything that hasn't been done before in regards to storytelling. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, she said: "This is not an original idea. Maybe in podcast form it is, and trying to do it as a documentary story is really, really hard. But trying to do it as a serial, this is as old as Dickens". Despite this, the skill and professionalism in which this technique is used by Koenig and the NPR team deserves praise - it has created a mesmeric and compelling podcast that has arguably changed how people regard podcasts and talk radio more generally.
One of the most captivating things about Serial is that when you listen to it you can't help but wonder if the narrator or protagonist ever thought that there would be a moment when the world would focus back on the case; a case that was open and shut in the eyes of the authorities. Modern technology has evolved to provide the reader with a channel to make up their own mind and be their own jury regarding the case, taking it much further from the criminal justice system - even possibly to the heights of contemporary fiction.
Despite the implication of innocence from the storytelling technique, the beauty of Serial lies in the fact that despite the angle and arguable agenda of the piece, no one really knows the real story. Although many feel Syed's conviction was a result of poor police work, unreliable witnesses and a weak defence, there is still no certainty. Koenig, who can legitimately be considered an expert on Syed's case, cannot even be sure of his innocence, stating that she would acquit Adnan Syed based on the evidence now available.
It is this doubt, this uncertainty surrounding the case, which means it is highly unlikely that Syed will be granted a retrial. However, it is the idea that no matter what stone is unturned, that 1% of doubt you have when thinking about Syed makes Serial such a wonderful addition to the world of podcasts and the world of investigative journalism.
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