Law Student Perspective on Serial: Truth in the Criminal Justice System

By now everyone has at least heard of the wildly successful podcast Serial.  I had been avoiding it for weeks because I knew it was the kind of show I would get obsessed with at the expense of my to-do list.  But last weekend I caved to FOMO and sure enough I binge-listened to the fascinating real life murder mystery.  Serial is appealing to anyone who loves a good story.  But for those of us who are interested in the criminal justice system, the back and forth about whether Adnan Syed killed his high school girlfriend Hae Lee justifies the comparisons to The Wire.  

I don’t know if Adnan did it.  But I am 100% convinced that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the first-degree murder for which he has been convicted and imprisoned for the last 15 years.

The State of Maryland’s case against Adnan raises questions about the adversarial legal system employed in the United States.  The lawyers for the prosecution and the lawyers for the defense are not charged with uncovering the truth.  Prosecutors make the best case for conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.  Defense lawyers zealously defend their clients by raising reasonable doubt.  Judges make sure both sides follow the rules in making their case to the jury.  That leaves the police as the only truth seekers.  This case reveals the tendency for the police to partner with prosecutors to advance the case that is most likely to sway jurors even if it is at the expense of the truth. 

The State’s entire case is based on Jay’s testimony.  We learn that the police never interviewed several key witnesses.  For example, they never interviewed Asia who was a potential alibi for Adnan during the time the state thinks Hae was killed. They never interviewed Hae’s fellow manager for the wrestling team who saw her after the time she was supposed to be dead.  And it is clear from the number of times Jay changes his story that he is being coached by the police and prosecution to tell a story that fits the only bit of evidence they have--Adnan’s cell phone records.  Once the prosecution and police had a theory they thought a jury would buy they seemed to stop investigating.  My jaw dropped when I heard that the prosecution paid for Jay’s lawyer.  In other words, the State found and paid for a private attorney for their only witness who also confessed to at minimum being an accomplice and possible co-conspirator to a murder.  How common is this highly unethical practice?

Sarah Koenig is not a police officer and she isn’t even a crime reporter.  Yet, she was able to piece enough information together to raise questions about the state’s timeline, expose the inconsistencies in Jay’s testimony, and find witnesses who raise all kinds of doubt about the State’s case. As a future lawyer and American citizen, I kept asking myself if this process actually serves the ends of the criminal justice system.  The incentives are such that police succeed when they make an arrest.  Prosecutors succeed when they get the conviction.  The judge succeeds when she avoids a mistrial.  No one is truly invested in uncovering the truth and isn’t that what justice requires? Should reporters be the only ones committed to the truth?

I was also disturbed by the way race, class, national origin, and anti-Muslim bias played a role in Adnan’s conviction. First, the motive would be completely bogus if Adnan wasn’t from Pakistan.  The prosecution argues that Adnan killed Hae because she broke up with him and disrespected his honor.  Given what listeners find out about Adnan, it just doesn’t make sense—unless you believe that Adnan’s Pakistani heritage and Muslim religion colors his views on women and makes him capable of an honor killing.  Second, there is the prosecutor’s argument during the bail hearing that there is an epidemic of “Pakistan” men committing similar honor killings across the country and absconding to Pakistan to escape prison.  The prosecutor later writes the judge to say she was "mistaken" but it is clear that the prosecutors and police are aware of these prejudices and play into them at every opportunity.   Lastly, I suspect that Hae’s Korean-American heritage and the model-minority myth played into the State’s characterization of Adnan as the controlling boyfriend victimizing his high-achieving girlfriend. 

When the last episode of Serial airs, I doubt we will have a clear answer about what really happened to Hae Lee—even if we learn what Sarah Koenig thinks.  But we should have many questions about how we measure success and align incentives for the men and women we entrust with our justice system.  As legal professionals and Americans we like to believe the criminal justice system is committed to the truth and is fair to everyone, regardless of race or religion.  This season of Serial reminds us that this isn’t always the case. 

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