The End of Serial, Part Two

by Michelle Dean

Adnan Syed

Well, it’s over. And naturally, in the way of Serial, my view on it is an internally incoherent, conflicted mess.

I suppose if you are afraid of spoilers you’d better stop reading here, though I’ve always thought the idea of being “spoiled” maps awkwardly onto non-fiction.

But I can’t write about Serial without calling today’s episode “meandering.” Over close to an hour, Koenig wandered through new interviews that didn’t resolve any questions, dropped a quick serial killer theory into the mix and digressed for quite awhile about AT&T billing practices. And then she came to a careful, qualified and ultimately inconclusive, er, conclusion:

If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don’t like that I do, but I do. I mean most of the time I think he didn’t do it.

My first thought was that a lot of people are going to write editorials about how unsatisfactory an ending this was. That was a theme of Serial commentary for the beginning: people were begging for the catharsis of a good ending. They were maybe begging for it a little too hard, myself included. Some people wanted a good story; others wanted good reporting. I tend to agree with the Texas Monthly‘s Pamela Colloff, who I interviewed for the Guardian last week about Serial. I think it’s better to have some idea where you’re going with a story, as a reporter, before you put it in front of the public.

But overnight I got to thinking about the analogy people sometimes draw between Serial and the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three. It’s certainly true that the first of those did more or less what Serial did. Gathering a great deal of information about an unsatisfying case up in its arms and then dumping it onto the screen, the documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky simply sowed doubt. In fact, the first two documentaries point the finger at what was ultimately determined to be the wrong alternative suspect, if anything. They were just as digressive and speculative as Serial. And yet: those documentaries did ultimately lead to the West Memphis Three getting out of prison.

Though even now, after their release, it’s still not clear who murdered the three children in Robin Hood Hills. And even though it pretty clearly wasn’t Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin, technically, on paper, they haven’t been exonerated. They entered an Alford plea, which is something of a declaration of stalemate where the truth is concerned. So even the catharsis of that ending was a little false, a little ersatz.

A lot about innocence and guilt is about gut feeling. Jurors vote based on gut feelings. And at least Koenig’s honest about what’s animating hers:

For big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence but also small reasons, things he said to me just off the cuff, or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear.

I also have this gut feeling that Syed is innocent, particularly if I’m answering the narrow question of whether he should have been convicted here. There was a really thin evidentiary record. Really thin. Like most Serial obsessives, I’ve looked at far more documents than the show provided. They make it clear that the state’s theory of the case is complete hogwash. Syed was convicted mostly because of the alchemy of the trial. He was screwed, judicially speaking, by the witches’ brew of a disorganized defense lawyer, an eyewitness who seems to have been relatively convincing on the stand but who was also clearly coached (outside the view of jurors) to get his testimony to match a cell phone call sheet, a certain amount of ignorance on the part of the jurors about Islam and a charming, lucid defendant who was instructed not to take the stand.

But just as I have views of how the evidence was presented at trial, I’ve found some of Serial’s choices utterly baffling. The worst one, by my lights, was that we got no context on the wider picture of justice in Baltimore in 1999. Koenig dutifully related that the prosecutor had stepped out of line when he provided the main state’s witness, Jay, with free private counsel. What she either could not or did not explain was whether prosecutorial misconduct of this kind was rampant in Baltimore. She also seemed rather late to the party in only addressing the role of prejudice against Muslims in the case. She got to it in episode 10 of 12, in a case where Islam was the explicit lynchpin of the motive. And even then, her coverage of it was cursory, glancing. It was too little, too late.

Other versions of that sort of criticism appear here, and here. I mostly held my tongue on it until the end because I agreed with those who said that it seemed a little unfair to ding Serial for it until the show was over. There was always the possibility, I agreed, that Koenig wanted to bring it up later for story structure reasons, for clarity. I might quibble with how she presented things but I couldn’t make any definitive statement while there were still new episodes left.

But here we are at the end, and: nothing about the larger criminal justice system in Baltimore was said. The religious bias questions were never touched again.

Even writing this I feel a little churlish. As I said yesterday, I’ve done enough reporting to see that Serial simply dramatized what an imperfect quest for the truth reporting can be. That’s why journalists, in particular, are obsessed with it; they see their own flaws reflected back at them, I think, though only the best are willing to admit it.

And even if the Monday-morning quarterbacking was annoying at times, I think it was also part of the point. Half the point of serializing any story is inciting the fervent, week-by-week breathless curiosity of the masses. You can’t fault them for responding accordingly. I’d hoped at some point Koenig might acknowledge it in the show itself, talk about how it might have shaped her. But she’s clearly not much for self-conscious meta-journalism. She insisted to the New York Times magazine, “I’m a reporter.”

And I keep thinking about how she said that one “bare fact” was key to her gut feeling:

“Why on earth would a guilty man agree to let me do this story, unless he was cocky to the point of delusion?”

Five million listeners, countless hours of human effort expended and no exoneration on the horizon later, it’s still a good question.

(Photo of Adnan Syed from Serial.)