My wife wondered what was wrong with me. I had spent a full day walking around the house with earphones in, occasionally muttering incoherently about cell phone records, pinged towers, or someone named Nisha. A few days later she did the same. I called her in the middle of that day and she answered the phone, “Jay’s a liar, that’s for certain.”
We, like a few million others, were hooked on Serial, a podcast that over 12 episodes explores one story. It’s a spinoff from This American Life, the award-winning National Public Radio program produced by Ira Glass. Sarah Koenig, who formerly produced stories for TAL, has spent the last year investigating the story of Adnan Syed. In 1999 (at the age of 17), Adnan was tried and convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend, who disappeared on a January afternoon and was found weeks later, strangled and buried in a shallow grave at a municipal park.
Over the last two hours I’ve listened to the finale of season one—twice—and I have a few thoughts about what the show has revealed about Adnan Syed’s case, justice in America, and the darkness in all of us.
Longing for Justice
Several folks have already pointed this out, but it’s worth repeating: Serial’s compelling power lies in the way it taps into our innate sense of justice. It would take a seriously warped soul not to be moved by the tragedy of Hae Min Lee’s death. By all accounts she was a promising kid—smart, athletic, strong-willed, and likeable. Someone strangled her and dumped her body in a shallow grave. The natural response is anger at the horror and injustice.
What Serial introduces is the possibility of another injustice: What if they got the wrong guy? What if the sweet, smart ex-boyfriend was somehow framed and has spent 15 years doing hard time for a crime he didn’t commit?
Innately, as image bearers of God, we can’t help but care about injustice. In Hae’s case in particular, blood speaks. It spoke from the ground where Cain killed Abel, and it speaks from the ground in Leakin Park where Hae’s body was found. It cries out for justice.
Serial and The Wire
While listening to Serial, I couldn’t help but think about The Wire, HBO’s police drama from a few years back, and not just because both take place in Baltimore. Both also force us to ask hard questions about our criminal justice system.
There are anomalies in the case against Adnan. Prosecutor Kevin Urick arranged for an attorney to represent Jay—the star witness who led to Adnan’s arrest and conviction. This is extremely odd. During the trial, Adnan’s lawyer absolutely lost her mind over this fact. In the final episode, we learn that Don—Hae’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance—was berated by Urick after testifying at two different trials; Urick wanted Don to paint Adnan as intimidating and sinister, but Don had never experienced him in that way.
Hearing these stories, and hearing that Jay’s recorded testimony to the police started hours after they began interviewing him, and hearing how Jay’s account changed from interview to interview, from trial to trial, and (in this last episode) how it was different yet again when he told his friends, I can’t help but think about Bunk, McNulty, and Rawls in The Wire.
Early and often in The Wire, the homicide department is presented not as a place in search of the truth, but as a factory for closing cases. Unidentified bodies need to go from red to black on the board—from unsolved to solved. Rawls’s obscenity-laced ranting at McNulty makes this clear: close the cases as quickly as possible. Pin the murder on somebody and move the case on to the prosecutor’s department.
We hear similar things from Jim Trainum, whom Sarah Koenig brought into the Serial investigation to review the case. In Jay’s testimony, there are facts that don’t help investigators “build the case,” and prosecutors avoid them. The prosecutors’ case is built on facts that may or may not tell the truth but that they believe will lead to a conviction. Once you recognize that fact and introduce into the discussion ulterior motives for closing/convicting cases (getting “numbers” right: closed cases, convictions, and so on), things get a little scary.
Someone once told me that it’s important to know the difference between doing a good job and making your boss happy. In The Wire, the conflict between McNulty and Rawls is about exactly this point. McNulty wants to do a good job; he wants to bring down the leaders of a drug-dealing ring that is responsible for dozens of murders. Rawls wants only to close cases as quickly as possible. Pin the murder on somebody—anybody—and move on.
One might object that The Wire is fiction and Serial is real life, and that’s fair. But it’s also fair to mention that The Wire was based on the real life of Jay Landsman, a Baltimore homicide detective who also appeared in the show as Major Mello. It’s also fair to mention that David Simon, the show’s creator and writer, was an investigative journalist who wanted to produce a realistic show about the trouble with our justice system. Finally, it seems worth mentioning that William Ritz, the detective who led the investigation against Adnan, admitted to coercing a confession that led to a wrongful conviction in the case of a man named Ezra Mable.
All of this takes on a greater sense of urgency in my mind when seen in the light of recent events with Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Obviously these are highly contested cases, but I share Thabiti Anyabwile’s opinion that a miscarriage of justice took place in Ferguson. See, for instance, Shaun King’s argument that an oft-quoted witness in the Ferguson case colluded with the prosecution to destroy the case against the officer that shot Michael Brown. Here again, evidence is construction—something pieced together to make an argument, but not necessarily discover the truth.
In Serial, we can’t help but ask some difficult questions about the justice system. Did something get squirrely in order to provide a conviction? Or was justice served in spite of all the problems?
Whether you share my view or not, as Christians we should be able to agree that our justice system is flawed—not because it’s poorly conceived, and not necessarily because it’s biased one way or another (though that, too, may be true), but because it’s all too human. It depends upon the actions and judgments of fallen people like you and me.
Humanity of a (Maybe) Killer/Liar/Master Manipulator
And it’s on this point that Serial, like its predecessor This American Life, is so impressive. The structure of the show—its skilled narration, its lengthy form, and the ability to hear from the characters themselves (especially Adnan)—don’t just bring us the facts; they bring us into contact with the people themselves. We hear the emotion in their voices. We hear warmth and compassion in both Koenig and Adnan, as well as frustration and occasional anger. We hear how people react to Jay—people who mistrust him as well as people who love him and believe him, including Koenig herself.
And I think this point is really important. There’s no question, at a minimum, that either Jay or Adnan is a horrific liar. Perhaps both are. What Koenig has done masterfully with almost every personality involved in the case (including the often unlikeable Cristina Gutierrez) is to help us empathize with them. Adnan is the primary recipient of this charity, but it applies to how she speaks about Jay in “The Deal with Jay.” We can empathize with both, though again, they are likely liars, maybe murderers.
This may be the best takeaway from Serial. Adnan is a human being, made in the image of God, fallen and sinful as anyone else. Because he’s an image bearer, full of characteristics that you and I can identify with and appreciate; he’s charming and smart and likeable. But because he’s a sinner, he has murderous potential in his heart. He has the potential for compulsive lying. He has the potential to narcissistically construct his whole understanding of the world so that in spite of whatever crimes he may have done, he still sees himself as a victim.
And so do you and I. If he’s guilty (and to show all my cards, today, I am completely agnostic on the matter—though I don’t think there’s evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”), then we see in his life the heights and depths of the human condition. His lovability and charm are remnants of the good that his life—like yours and mine—was meant for when God said, “Let us create man in our image.” His murderous darkness—again, like yours and mine—reminds us of how far we’ve fallen.