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Serial Uncertainty

For the past two months, Sarah Koenig, a journalist who works on the NPR program, “This American Life,” has produced a weekly radio non-fiction exploration of a single murder case called Serial.  The case centers on the murder of a young woman named Have Li occurred in 1999, and the eventual conviction for murder of one Adnan Syed. The format, an ongoing podcast, collects information from the original case, details the ways the Adnan’s defense was bungled or made more difficult by the stubborn refusal of the facts of the murder to cohere into one definitive shape. As new information came to the attention of Koenig she would plug that back into the unraveling story. Serial has created a mini universe of its own, people listening, straining to figure out the whos and whats of the case, spinning off their own theories. Really the closest another work came to the sheer complexity and involvement of Serial this year was True Detective, another sprawling murder mystery that seemed to adore the sheer ambiguity of its source material.



Serial’s Rust Cole is Sarah Koenig, as an exhaustively thorough journalist as could be imagined. Like the fictional Cole, Koenig finds herself confronting "the Sprawl," the massive amount of secondary circumstantial evidence about the crime, the facts and rumors swirling in a dense fog. Unlike Cole, a pessimist, Koenig is simply skeptical. Or as she says in the powerful closing moments of the final episode, “I nurse doubts."

This week was the last installment of “Serial” and appropriately enough, it’s entitled, “What We Know.” That for me is the most interesting question this series raises. All due respect to Adnan, I have trouble determining for myself his guilt or innocence or even what either of those things would mean. For me that’s not a problem. I am not a lawyer, I am not a judge. I’m not even a journalist. At the end of the day, I am a consumer of entertainment. And Adnan’s story, as filtered through Koenig’s skeptical eyes, interests me more on the level of exploring what we, as human beings, can know about anything. There is an existential crisis woven through every episode of this show. We are asked to confront facts that change, testimony that is corrupt, characters that may not be all that we assume them to be. This is a case the relies upon the memories of its participants and as a person constantly reminded of the fallibility of human memory, that's a terrifying prospect. 

A single page from AT&T mobile contract faxed over from a old Maryland class action suit can suddenly obliterate the best evidence the prosecution had for convincing a jury that he was, in fact, guilty. To those sympathetic to Adnan, convinced he is innocent of Hei’s murder, such facts might be the cause of rejoicing. To me it was the final nail in the coffin Koenig spent two months constructing. As a lawyer she brought in for consulting said, "this case is a mess."

I'm left with a simple observation, if Adnan did in fact kill Hei Li and then lied about it for 15 years he would qualify as a very terrifying species of psychopath, a true monster. But to imagine that scenario, I would have to discount my own sense of him as I’ve received it through his taped interviews. The guy sounds…decent. Not unaffected by his experiences, but thoroughly human, soulful in a way nearly hard to fathom considering his life sentence in a maximum security prison. There is a quality of his voice, earnest, charming, and self-aware that paints the picture of a deeply conscientious person. A person aware of his flaws, a person who has come to terms with his fate, if still insistent at this late date that he is innocent, that he himself is a victim of a monstrous injustice. Trying to imagine this voice of a person I’ve never met as a cold, calculating killer is possible in the sense that I suppose anyone is capable of murder in the proper circumstance. However it’s a little like being asked to believe that a 111 year old man completed a triathalon, the basic hypothesis seems unlikely.

This case asks us to confront the possibility that any normal human being might be a murderer, that ultimately we don’t know what actually occurs within the headspace of another person. Perhaps Adnan snapped and then forgot what he did. Perhaps he remembers but can’t bear the shame of admitting it. Perhaps he knows, remembers, and doesn’t care. Maybe, just maybe, he’s completely innocent and if we listened to him, understanding that he is an innocent man, wrongly convicted, everything would be clear.

But, after twelve episodes, that is precisely what is not clear.

To her credit, Koenig not only recognizes these ambiguities, she revels in them. In an interview she said that being certain of anything is just not in her nature. And during her frequent taped conversation with Adnan, we hear her stubborn refusal to simply believe him, to trust he’s innocent. She wants to know the truth. But the truth, 15 years after the events of the crime described is murky, indistinct, and always a few steps out of reach.

Why does Adnan give his phone and car to Jay, a person it appears he had little contact with. Why does Jay’s testimony, filled with lies, nevertheless corroborated by portions of the cell phone record. There is so much about this case that will never, cannot ever, be known. Why was there a phone call at 3:21 pm from Adnan’s phone to a friend that lasts over two minutes that no one seems to remember and yet does more than other piece of evidence to incriminate him. Even getting ahold of the family of the victim, The Li’s proves frustratingly elusive. 

There is a wall between us and Adnan as well. As he confesses in a letter written to Koenig close to the end of the series. He has been weighing his words, carefully presenting a version of himself that adheres as closely as possible to the simple facts of the case. But out of his mouth, that doesn’t sound cold, or calculating. It sounds human.

Again the story shifts, I agree with Koenig. With all of the evidence laid out, with all that is known, it’s hard to believe this case ever went to trial let alone let to a conviction. And yet, and yet…there are doubts.

No work of art, and Serial is unmistakably that, exists free of context. And in the case of Serial, that context is a year in which obvious and monstrous miscarriages of justice have spawned riots, recriminations, and doubt in the American system of justice. It also exists within the context of its parent show, This American Life which has made an entire decade of journalism that seeks out the uncomfortable realm between established paradigms of how this country operates. Then there’s the movement described in the book “Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases,” by Deborah Halber. Although Koenig has more resources at her desposal than the typical individual, she is still not a lawyer, not a police officer, not a judge. She is someone captured by an insanely ambiguous story, using only her own power of skepticism to guide her way through the murk. 

Perhaps, in the end, that is meaning I take away from this Serial, even when you admit that what is known is very, very little, you have to come down on one side or the other. You can’t take a powder, as Koenig describes it, you have the responsibility for making a decision and living with it.
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