Monday, November 17, 2014

(Audio)book review (sorta): Serial the podcast

I happened across an article last week which was titled something Buzzfeed-y like "5 reasons you should be listening to the unbelievable Serial Podcast" and while I usually avoid these sorts of articles on principle (seriously, can people start trying with their headlines again?) something drew me in.

Serial is a new podcast that breaks the traditional podcast mould. Rather than looking at a new subject each week, Serial is taking 12 episodes to investigate a murder case from 1999. From the website:
"On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t."
The podcast is absolutely fascinating. It's like listening to a true crime novel, but unlike a novel it's a living document. As the podcast grows in popularity, more people will come forward with their memories of the event and the people involved. Sarah Koenig is the host of Serial and she (along with her research and production team) has structured the show to make it as enticing as possible. Each episode raises more questions than the last, and just when you think you have a hold of the evidence Koenig introduces something new that completely shakes your previous confidence.

Though the show is looking at a real life case it is easy to fall into the classic "whodunnit" realm as you listen to the evidence Koenig presents both against and in support of Adnan. A lot of the articles and reddit posts on the podcast are of people wondering whether Adnan is telling the truth about his innocence, which understandably leads to a lot of conspiracy theories. But while this is an obvious hook into the series I actually think it's a very small part of what the series is about. Unless the series manages to stumble upon a confession from someone else (or maybe lures Adnan into finally admitting guilt/involvement) it's less about the case, and more about the judicial system that sent Adnan to jail.

I really recommend giving the series a listen for yourself (it's currently at 8 episodes, and a new one is released every Thursday) so I'm going to be a little vague on the details but one of the things that's stood out for me in this case is the inconsistencies. So much of the case is built on a single witness testimony, and it's a testimony that is riddled with problems. Every episode I find myself wondering "is this standard in murder trials?" "is it usual for cops to take a single course of action and ignore other avenues of investigation?" and "why wouldn't a defence attorney bring up the prosecutions cherry picking of the phone records?" Granted, I have very little knowledge on the judicial system outside of crime dramas and believe me, I know how unlikely it is that they're feeding me facts over fiction, but so much of the information in the podcast just seems illogical. If this case is typical, what does that say about the judicial system? If a jury admits to voting guilty largely on the basis that the defendant didn't take the stand, does that mean we need to look closer into whether the jury system is actually the best way to handle these cases? So much of the court case seems to have depended on who could tell the best story, and that worries the hell out of me. Is that really the best way to get justice? How many innocent people end up in jail because the prosecutor is that much better at spinning the evidence in their favour? And how many guilty Richie Riches walk free because they can buy the best people to defend them?

This show is run by many of  the same producers and managers as This American Life, including Ira Glass, so you don't need to take it from me that this show has impeccably high standards, both in terms of production and journalism. It's infinitely more 'readable' than most of the audiobooks that I've tried over the past year, and each episode leads to a huge conversation between me and Tom as try to get on top of the new information presented. And since it's a podcast it's free, so win win right?


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