I just spent about a week in Miami, including (obviously) two flights to/from the city, and during the entire period of time, I managed to “binge-listen” to the Serial podcast from This American Life, which is one of the (if not the) most popular podcasts of all-time. (People are now calling this period “the great podcast renaissance.”) I write a lot about true crime on this blog, and the Serial podcast is essentially about true crime (it follows one case from January 1999), so I figured it would be a good idea to put together some thoughts about it. I was going to call this post “A bunch of thoughts about the Serial podcast,” but that didn’t seem to really have a very good SEO tie, so I went with something I believe through the first nine episodes: Adnan Syed, currently in jail in Maryland for murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999, is actually innocent. And now, a bunch of thoughts.
The Journalism Aspect (Before We Get Into The Case)
I’ve had a couple of different “journalism-type” jobs — for example, I worked at ESPN for years — although I wouldn’t necessarily call myself “a journalist” by any means. (I link tons of stuff on this blog, but I don’t officially fact-check everything I link, no.) Some people are uncomfortable with the way Serial unfolds, because it’s not tried-and-true journalism. Rather, the host (Sarah Koenig) often will ruminate aloud about how different things she’s learned have changed her view of the case. I personally think this is a good technique, and I think it explains part of the reason for the podcast’s popularity. Very few things in life are cut-and-dried; in fact, in many complex situations (which crime can often fall into), we learn new pieces of information and have to fit them into a contextual whole. We can go back-and-forth on things. That’s legitimately human nature. But, at the same time, we’re trained to believe that a journalist presents us with facts that have been vetted and does so in a professional way. That’s not always how Serial works — remember the sequence talking about Adnan and Jay stoned at “Kathy’s” (not her real name) house, where Koenig mentions she’s been that girl? Oftentimes, we think “a true journalist” wouldn’t approach things that way.
There’s also the issue of “white reporter privilege,” best detailed here. In the first episode, one of the most interesting aspects is that this will be a case involving the American immigrant experience — because Adnan and Hae were both exactly that. Sarah Koenig is, essentially, not that. Her entire staff on this show is white. She brings in many voices, yes, but to think she can completely capture the experience she’s somewhat trying to define is impossible. I’m not necessarily saying the podcast would be better if a Pakistani or Asian hosted it, but I understand the concerns therein.
There are numerous issues with the timeline of this case and where people were at different points and what cell phone towers were in use, etc. Here’s a fairly detailed timeline of events from the actual day.
In general, the time window you’re evaluating is about 21 minutes — essentially, 2:15pm until 2:36pm, when authorities believe (and time of death could be inexact) that Hae was killed.
Here’s the transcript from Episode 5 where Koenig and a producer do the exact route from Woodlawn High School to the Best Buy where the crime supposedly occurred. They did it in 22 minutes and 2 seconds. That’s an extremely tight window if you believe Hae was killed at 2:36pm. You pretty much have to get everything right — there can be no time lapses or traffic snarls — and you have to kill her in about 1 minute (possible, but some argue it takes closer to 5 minutes). That’s a very narrow window for a 17 year-old who likely has never killed before.
Start with the timeline, then — if time of death and phone calls is even remotely right, there’s a very narrow ability for this to go down.
Best Buy Situations
Reddit has claimed there was a pay phone at the Best Buy in question, but it seems Koenig and her team did a lot of digging on this, and the proof isn’t there. (In Episode 9, they talk even more about it.) Let’s say there wasn’t a pay phone — that puts a lot of holes in different stories being told about Adnan, especially from Jay.
Here’s my other concern: this murder had to take place in broad daylight, because even if you don’t think 2:36pm is the time, it probably happened during the afternoon of January 13, 1999. Even if they went to the corner of the Best Buy parking lot — maybe even behind the main building, or off to the side or something — that’s still extremely hard to (a) kill someone and then (b) move their body into the trunk of the same car without anyone noticing. Has it happened in human history that people have been killed in broad daylight and stuffed into cars? Sure. It has. But in those 30-40 seconds it would take, there’s a huge risk of a shopper coming by and seeing something, etc.
This all goes along with the timeline issues. For a novice murderer to do this in broad daylight, at a Best Buy, and within a super-tight time window — that’s very hard to believe.
Now, you could believe the actual murder took place somewhere else — a pool hall, the school library parking lot, etc. — but there are holes with those theories too.
This isn’t discussed a lot, but it seems important if you think about it from a human psychology standpoint. Stephanie is Jay’s girlfriend. Apparently she’s very close with Adnan. Apparently, six or seven years after the murder, Jay was telling old HS classmates that he got involved and did what Adnan wanted because he was afraid he (Adnan) would hurt Stephanie. Sarah Koenig has been able to get almost everyone in this case to talk about it, including Jay. She never (to this point) got Stephanie, going so far as to mention that after all these events, “a wall came down” for Stephanie. It impacted her friendships. People close to the case have said “they want to hear Stephanie’s side of the story,” while also indicating that Hae was, at one point, preparing to confront Jay about his infidelities (cheating on Stephanie). It seems like, from Episode 1, maybe Jay wasn’t the greatest boyfriend — Adnan had gotten a birthday gift for Stephanie, but Jay hadn’t. That’s where the entire thing basically starts. That’s why Jay had Adnan’s car for pockets of that day. Stephanie is a key cog here, IMHO — from a sheer psychology standpoint, walls don’t come down and friendships don’t end over things that didn’t affect you in a major, tangible way and over things you don’t know a lot about.
Hae’s Credit Card
This hasn’t been mentioned on the podcast, but has been mentioned in other spots of the Internet. There’s a $1.71 charge on Hae’s credit card on January 13, 1999 at a location very far from her cousin’s school (where she had to go pick him up, apparently). This gives credence to the idea that maybe Roy Davis is involved; Davis was ultimately arrested in a similar-type crime that happened about a month before Hae went missing. Davis’ location at the time (January 1999) lines up with the gas station where the $1.71 was charged. If you remember the episode where Koenig and company go look at the site of the body being found, there was a bunch of stuff nearby — including liquor bottles, etc. — that was never really tested. Some of that stuff could be connected to Davis. There’s been some reports that the Innocence Project is looking at Davis as a possibility for Hae’s murder, but that could be inaccurate.
The Entire Crux Of Everything Is Jay vs. Adnan
Probably the singular aspect that makes Serial interesting is this: it all comes down to whether you believe Jay, Adnan, or that Jay and Adnan worked together on this. And if you believe either side or a combo theory, it’s very curious that they speak of each other so passively and ill-defined. In the ‘Deal with Jay’ episode, his friends and acquaintances talk about how he stood out. Adnan barely defines him. Jay barely defines Adnan. In sum, they don’t seem to really be friends. They smoked pot together. I smoked pot with a ton of kids in HS. I would never reach out to one of them if I had committed a murder. There are some insane conspiracy theories about Jay, sure, but how weird is it that a high school kid — who likely never murdered before, if he murdered this time — would go to some random pot friend of his to help with everything?
I know the theory is “criminal element” and/or Adnan threatened Stephanie and/or Adnan told Jay he’d expose his pot-dealing and connections, but that doesn’t really seem to hold up.
All this stuff with Adnan and Jay and Stephanie could be tied to drugs and a bigger, badder real killer, yes.
Your theory of this case ultimately comes down to who you believe in terms of Jay and Adnan, which leads into …
Baltimore Area Courtrooms
Most people here have probably seen The Wire. You know the stereotypes associated with Baltimore. 7 of the 12 jurors were African-American. Jay was dressed nice, kept it polite, didn’t really raise his voice. Adnan is a Pakistani Muslim. Who do you think a jury in that situation is going to favor? (Because I don’t think I explicitly mentioned it before, Jay is African-American.)
Maybe Adnan Is A Psychopath
When Koenig goes and talks to the Innocence Project people in Charlottesville, the lead lady tells her there’s a slim chance of her getting a mild-mannered kid who’s really a psychopath on her first foray into this kind of reporting. I agree with that. It does seem unlikely.
The thing is, though, if you watch enough true crime shows or follow the news — or even look at trends in popular culture, where anti-heroes are all the rage — a very notable aspect of all this is the simple question of: Is anyone capable of just up and being evil?
Certainly, it’s possible. (That’s for a longer post on this blog.)
It might have been possible with Adnan, and some of those theories around how he might have been crazy and how he planned it out are listed here.
He was a detective on the Adnan Syed case; in 2012, he ultimately left Baltimore PD under a cloud of ill-gotten gains, police-wise. I’m not saying that every cop who’s made a mistake once has made a mistake in every case they’ve worked, but this does need to be considered. Here’s another case law context where Ritz may be corrupt.
Why I Ultimately Think Adnan Is Innocent
- The timeline makes no sense to me, or anyone with a brain. (Yes, it could be wrong.)
- It would be very hard to kill someone at a Best Buy in broad daylight, at a school library parking lot, or at a pool hall.
- Jay was done up well for a jury, but seems like a less-than-trustworthy person overall.
- The defense lawyer (Christina Gutierrez) seems to have approached the context of the case all wrong. (More on that in the next episode.)
- I don’t think Mr. S (the guy that found the body) did it, but I do think the streaking stuff is weird and 127 feet seems a long way to go just to pee.
Honestly, sometimes I think this case is a bit like Lauren Spierer — it’s possible that a crew of friends, some of whom had ties to drugs, got in over their heads in terms of what happened one afternoon and all started cross-covering for each other. Over time, the situation fades from memory because the police and justice system are backed up with other cases. But it did cause friendships to erode (as we’ve seen here) and parents to openly weep. The obvious difference between those cases is (a) Spierer’s body was never found and (b) no one is in jail for it. But the basics of what happened — things going too far and drugs playing a role — could be the same.
I’m sure I missed a bunch of stuff above, and glossed over a few key parts, but — what’s your theory of what happened?