Series: How a podcast changed the face of true crime and cast doubt on Adnan Syed’s murder conviction


EEight years ago, a new sound hit the airwaves. It was minimal, just a few notes on a piano, layered over an audio recording of a phone call from prison. Then two voices: that of Adnan Syed, a man who by then had spent 14 years behind bars, and that of Sarah Koenig, a journalist who had spent a year trying to find out if he belonged there.

SerialThe first season of aired in just two months, but it marked the beginning of an ongoing saga — and recently came to a head when Baltimore prosecutors sought to have Syed’s conviction overturned. This in itself is a major development, and SerialThe impact of has been felt beyond Syed’s case. It has reshaped the way many view the justice system. This led some listeners to the idea that crime stories could be consumed not just for entertainment value, not just for the guilty thrill of speculation, but because they raised questions worth asking. He did this by confronting listeners, again and again, with the endless cruelty behind a possibly wrongful conviction, and the apparent fragility of the evidence used to secure it. Serial was never overtly militant, but he cemented the idea that there was a way to make something noble out of a true crime story.

As for podcasts, Serial had all the hallmarks of prestige right from the start. It appeared as a spin-off of This American Life, the iconic public radio show hosted by Ira Glass since 1995, with Koenig as host and Julie Snyder as producer. The story of Syed’s case was told in classic public radio fashion. Rather than jumping straight into a crime story, the first episode of Serial asked listeners to think about memory.

“Last year, I spent every work day trying to find out where a high school kid was, for an hour after school one day in 1999,” Koenig said. “…Before I explain why I did this, I just want to point out something that I never really thought about before I started working on this story, and that’s – that’s really hard to make account of your time, in detail, I mean.

The episode then launched into a two-minute sequence about memory and its weaknesses. Koenig asked the teenagers to tell what they had been up to six weeks before. The exercise was obviously difficult, the teenagers’ memories were fuzzy and incomplete. Koenig tied it all to Syed’s case, showing how the passage of time complicates the recollection of a given event – in ways that can prove crucial when the event in question is at the heart of a murder case.

SerialThe inaugural season of focused on the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school girl who was strangled to death in January 1999. She was 18 and, according to Koenig, was “responsible” as well as “smart, beautiful, and cheerful and a great athlete” who played field hockey and lacrosse. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, then 17, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2000. He has since maintained his innocence.

It seems likely that Syed’s case would never have come to national attention if Serial had not come. (A recent New York Times The timeline of Syed’s legal battles jumps from 2000, the year he was convicted, to 2014, the year the podcast was released.) Over the course of 12 episodes, Koenig interrogated the evidence used to convict Syed, including the testimonials and cell phone data. In episode six, titled “The Case Against Adnan Syed”, she engaged with all the circumstantial evidence against him – an effort consistent with Serialcommitment to examine both the possibility of his guilt and that of his innocence.

Koenig never hid his doubts and occasional doubts about the case. The show asked you to see all of Adnan Syed, while admitting that there were sides of him, and sides of his story, that had yet to come out. This kind of meta undertone was familiar to public radio listeners. (shows as This American Life and radiolab have made engagement with the making of a show part of their audio identity, with snippets of behind-the-scenes clips and candid interview moments making their way into the final product.) In the context of a show true crime, it took an extra dimension: when Koenig expressed his doubts about a specific type of evidence, it illustrated the fragility of the criminal justice system and the fragility of the series of events that put Syed in prison. Journalistically, there was something new, even liberating: what if the quest for the truth instead led to more uncertainty? What if understanding what you don’t know was the most important part of all? What if searching for answers and finding hours of material, but no definitive answer, was also a powerful act of truth?

The listeners of Serial remained divided as to Syed’s guilt. If you have an opinion on the matter, you probably know another person who has the exact opposite. “It’s been a year since I first contacted Adnan, and I still speak to him regularly,” Koenig said at the start of the season finale. “I still ask him the basics. I always think – I don’t know, he’ll remember something, or maybe he’ll get so frustrated with me that he’ll snap.

She then heard Adnan say on the phone, “I still want to know what you were doing that afternoon. I want to know who had your phone, and I want to know what you were doing that afternoon. Syed responds, “You know, I don’t remember anything.” There were, throughout the check-in hours Serialof the first season, a dizzying feeling of How could we not know? How could all these mysteries remain, how could all these questions be unanswered, when a man had been imprisoned for years as if they had been? A brief survey of Serial listeners will give divided responses as to the possibility of his guilt, but it is empirically difficult to find a listener to the show who thinks Syed got a fair trial.

Adnan Syed leaves the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland on February 5, 2016.


Serial became the first-ever podcast to win a Peabody Award. Syed’s case was explored in an HBO documentary (also titled The case against Adnan Syed) in 2019. Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and friend of Syed, published a book titled Adnan’s story: the search for truth and justice after the soap operain 2016, and hosted undiscloseda podcast on wrongful convictions, since 2015. Serial continued with a second season focusing on Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban and later charged with desertion. The show’s third season featured several individual cases, with the aim of illustrating the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think we can understand how the criminal justice system works by interrogating an extraordinary case,” Koenig said in the season three premiere. “Ordinary cases are where we have to look. We need to spend at least a year observing ordinary criminal justice in the least exceptional, middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-country place we can find – Cleveland.

It’s impossible not to see Serial‘s reflected in the myriad of true-crime podcasts released in the years since. Up and gone (2016), Wondery’s Dr. Death (2018), and Your own garden (2019) are among a cohort of podcasts to have adopted a similar format, telling the story of one specific case per season. Serial permeated pop culture to the point that Saturday Night Live used it as the basis for a skit in December 2014, with Cecily Strong playing Koenig. The sketch, which mimicked Koenig’s delivery, SerialThe writing style and format of, and even the podcast’s opening theme, only made sense if viewers were familiar with the show. SNL the writers believed they were, and obviously – the skit has 3.4 million views on YouTube – they were right.

In Syed’s case, the Wednesday (September 14) announcement that prosecutors had asked a judge to overturn Syed’s conviction was a monumental development after years of protracted legal battles.

“The motion filed today supports a new trial for Syed based on a nearly year-long investigation that uncovered undisclosed and newly developed information regarding two alternate suspects, as well as cell tower data. unreliable,” a state office press release said. Lawyer Marilyn Mosby. He goes on to say that “the State is not, at this time, asserting that Mr. Syed is innocent”, but that “while the investigation is ongoing, taking into account all of the circumstances, the State does not trust the integrity of the conviction and demands that Mr. Syed be granted a new trial.

Mosby also called for Syed to be released from prison, as “we believe keeping Mr. Syed in custody as we continue to investigate the matter with all that we know now, while we have no faith in the results of the first trial, would be unjust.”

If the motion is granted, Syed could get a new trial, or prosecutors could dismiss the charges depending on the results of an ongoing investigation. The Twitter account of Serial reacted to the development in a post that read, “This is great news. For the first time, Baltimore prosecutors say they don’t trust Adnan Syed’s conviction and are calling for his release. It was a classically factual statement, a concise analysis of what we know and what remains to be seen. A fitting message for a moment eight years in the making.


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