With the conclusion of the first season of “Serial,” it’s safe to say that most of us were as underwhelmed by the final episode as “Funny or Die” predicted.
[Spoiler alert] Though having demonstrated her indefatigable investigative skills, “Serial” creator Sarah Koenig couldn’t erode outstanding doubt about who killed Hae Min Lee. Nevertheless, the final episode skillfully synthesized the podcast’s recurring concepts: the distinctions between citizen, journalist and juror, as well as the complexities of our legal system, human nature, criminal responsibility and truth itself.
The fact that so many seasoned investigators and criminal justice experts still disagree about the answers to the podcast’s remaining questions reveals the arduousness of criminal justice and the inscrutability of much of “Serial’s” subject matter. “Serial” demonstrated the difficulty of its topics across 12 in-depth episodes. Such careful and extended treatment is a welcome departure from political sound bites and naive assumptions about criminal convicts that are common in discussions of today’s criminal justice issues.
Will ‘Serial’ ultimately help Adnan Syed’s case?
The question of who killed Lee is not the only one left unanswered by the season finale. The podcast also leaves us wondering: Could “Serial” help Syed’s case in some tangible way? It’s possible. “Serial” has already triggered further investigation that may turn up exculpatory evidence.
Toward the end of the podcast, Koenig spoke with Deirdre Enright at the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic. Enright and her team of law students are pursuing a separate set of leads.
Enright discussed evidence, including various swabs, human hairs and material collected from under Lee’s fingernails, which was never tested against DNA samples from major suspects and existing law enforcement databases. The absence of this evidence from Syed’s original trials may eventually be used to show that Syed received ineffective assistance of counsel and therefore deserves a new trial. If that new trial is granted, the new evidence can also make its way into the courtroom.
There is a small chance that the Innocence Project may find evidence that proves that Syed did not kill Lee. Enright and her team have begun creating a list of alternative suspects in Syed’s case; during the final episode, Enright discusses the deceased Ronald Lee Moore, who left prison a few days before Lee’s murder in 1999.
“Serial” also inspired a startling number of amateur sleuths on Reddit who have helped identify another suspect who was not initially on the Innocence Project’s list. It may seem like a long shot, but if the Innocence Project can link an alternative suspect to evidence collected at the crime scene, there is a chance for Syed to be declared innocent and released from prison.
‘Serial’ prompts Jay Wilds to speak to the media
As discussed extensively in “Serial,” the case against Syed depended almost entirely upon the testimony of his former classmate Jay Wilds, who refused to speak with Koenig on “Serial” but recently agreed to interviews with The Intercept’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper. “Serial” called into question Wilds’ credibility as a witness due to inconsistencies in the facts and timeline he relayed to police and testified to during trial.
In addition to providing more details, Wilds’ recent interview outlines the same account of Lee’s murder that he has always given: Syed killed Lee, and Wilds helped Syed bury the body. However, Wilds’ interview also includes facts and details that are inconsistent with his prior accounts of the events of Lee’s murder. To the extent that Wilds’ interview can be used to show a pattern of falsehood, omission and inconsistency, it can potentially be used to impeach his credibility and character as a witness, which would assist Syed in his case.
“Serial” has made public Wilds’ weaknesses as a witness and has reviewed new evidence never presented in Syed’s first two trials. For a podcast, “Serial’s” contributions have raised a historic level of public interest in a murder trial, and that’s a good thing. The press has long been considered “the fourth estate” of government, and raising awareness about the inner workings of all government branches, particularly the judicial branch, is arguably its most important function.
Could ‘Serial’ hurt Syed’s chances for appeal?
It’s difficult to imagine that “Serial” has hurt Syed’s case, since he was already serving time in prison for a murder conviction when the podcast began. If investigators for “Serial” or the Innocence Project were to uncover inculpating evidence in Syed’s case, nothing would change for him. If, on the other hand, Enright and her team succeed in obtaining a new trial, their efforts would present an opportunity that Syed probably would not have encountered without “Serial.” It’s hard to see how the publicity and the investigations provided by “Serial” have not benefited Syed, even if they do not ultimately succeed in proving his innocence.
By conducting real investigative work on his case, “Serial” has provided Syed with legal avenues he wouldn’t otherwise have. “Serial” has done more than raise awareness about Syed’s case and the trial process; it has substantively contributed to the case itself.
As most “Serial” listeners know by now, it’s impossible to estimate the chances that the lab tests and investigations conducted by the Innocence Project could prove Syed’s innocence. Conducting investigations in the legal process can be a lot like being a podcast listener – sometimes you just have to wait and see.