Murder is in the details

Serial is the most successful podcast around these days. At its core, it’s about the 1999 death of a Baltimore County high school student called Hae Min Lee, about her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who is serving life in prison, and about Jay, the guy who testified in court that it was Adnan who killed Hae.

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All this is told in weekly instalments by journalist Sarah Koenig. The material she presents is intriguing, but I think Koenig herself is the key to Serial‘s success: she asks the right questions, provides smart answers, and is unafraid to confront many of the people involved. After twelve months of researching Adnan’s case, she does not claim to know the truth – she still isn’t sure if he is guilty or not. Her point is: the trial was too weak for Adnan to be convicted. I agree. There are too many unanswered questions, too many incongruous details.

And she avoids the greatest of pitfalls: she doesn’t sensationalize. She’s simply curious about what has happened, and we are allowed to come along. She has the right kind of voice for this – at times, she is annoyed, surprised and suspicious just as her audience must be.

I don’t have a particular problem with a real-life murder case being used for entertainment – if it comes along smart and knowledgeable like this series here. Koenig and her team could not have foreseen the success that Serial has now. And if it leads to pressure for a re-trial or to a case review, why not? I only have a problem with those amateur sleuths who gain access to trial documents and then publish the names and details of persons who are connected to this case whose names Koenig withheld intentionally. Adnan’s family also gets pestered by people who want to know if they think that Adnan is a psychopath.

Sarah Koenig

Dramatically, Serial is a risk. This is about real life, and it won’t bow to conventional storytelling. Koenig has gotten so many donations that there will be a second season – maybe about another crime with its open questions and incongruities. Meanwhile, Adnan Syed’s case has been taken on by a group of lawyers connected to the innocence project, so whereas Serial will definitely come to its end next week, the case might go on. So be it – this might well turn into a podcast that has an impact on the US legal system. Imagine that.

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