The End Of Serial, Part Three

by Michelle Dean

Without Rabia Chaudry, a civil rights attorney in Maryland, there would have been no Serial. Chaudry is the family friend of Adnan Syed’s who approached Koenig about doing the story in the first place. She is personally convinced Syed is innocent, and had hoped Koenig would come to advocate for his release the way she had. At TIME yesterday, she recorded her disappointment with the way it played out instead:

A few weeks ago Koenig visited me do a follow-up interview. None of that interview made it into the remaining episodes, but at that time, and on the mic, she told me that after a year of investigating, she had failed to find a smoking gun. She found nothing that either condemned Adnan for certain, and nothing that exonerated him for certain.

It was not a punch to the gut, necessarily, but a quiet closing of a chapter that I had held open for 15 years. In the midst of the enormous coverage of the case and show, of hearty congratulations for staying on it, of lots of movement by the different teams of lawyers now working to help Adnan, I felt like a failure.

After making the decision unilaterally to get media involved, I’ve felt heavily responsible for the pain it’s forced Adnan and his loved ones to go through. It would be worth it, I hoped. Something concrete would surface. Koenig wouldn’t tolerate the fuzziness. She would dig till she struck rock.

Except Koenig didn’t. Chaudry adds that she nonetheless doesn’t regret taking the story to Koenig. And that Koenig still plans to follow the story, and that some good has come of the show. Still. I do not know Chaudry, though I interviewed her briefly for a piece. Reading the above three paragraphs made my own gut churn on her behalf anyway.

It is not unusual for subjects to feel disappointment with what journalist ultimately manage to dig up. Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is pretty much entirely about the conflict between what the writer writes and what the subject is hoping she’ll write. But expecting the disconnect doesn’t make the experience less wrenching for everyone.

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.)

The End of Serial, Part One

by Michelle Dean

Tomorrow morning will see the airing of the very last episode of Serial. At this point everyone’s spilled so much ink on the podcast you might be feeling some fatigue, but I’ll throw my own writing on the subject your way anyway. I’ve been following closely and also doing some reporting on the subreddit that became a sort of second character on the show as things moved along. It has been a strange, sad, and oddly moving to experience and observe this phenomenon. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it all.

I’ll write more in the morning once I’ve heard the episode, but it seemed worth recording my last-Serial-eve feelings of trepidation with you. I am not expecting fireworks tomorrow. I am expecting a whimper.

I may be wrong to do so. It’s of course possible Koenig will announce that she has found evidence either that Adnan Syed is either innocent or guilty of the murder he is now in prison for. But more likely, I think, is that we’ll get a kind of meditation on how weird this whole experience has been for Koenig herself. And then she’ll sign off. And we’ll all be left looking at each other, wondering exactly what it is we’ve done by opening this whole case up to rabid public attention if there was no endgame in sight.

It may sound like I’m condemning Koenig there. I’m not. I’m oddly sympathetic to her. I don’t think she could have predicted the rabid attention this podcast got, and I especially don’t think she could have predicted that the last episode of this show would come freighted with so many feelings. Tonight has got to be a strange night of her life.

And you know, I’ve done enough of my own reporting to know that this is the way things are, if you do non-fiction. Sometimes stories don’t pan out. Life doesn’t offer happy endings. Telling stories about other people involves, all too frequently, hurting them. It most certainly involves leaving them to their own devices after you’re done reporting, to live on their lives as people who were once written about. I think most of my weird feelings amount to that, actually: what will happen to Adnan Syed now, one the white hot spotlight of national obsession leaves him?