Serial: the limits to reasonable doubt

This chilling true-crime podcast series makes a timely stand for the presumption of innocence.

David Bowden

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While the British media have been whipping themselves into a sanctimonious frenzy over the Cereal Killer café in Shoreditch, there is a free American Serial much more worthy of your attention. The podcast spin-off from the hit radio show This American Life has been slowly building an audience since it began airing just over two months ago – over five million listeners are eagerly awaiting the final instalment tomorrow night (BBC Radio 4 started broadcasting the show last week). It is essential listening for anyone interested in the principles of justice, reasonable doubt and judgement.

The series takes the form of an old-fashioned crime serial, with presenter Sarah Koenig taking us through the real case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore high-school student jailed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. Syed is currently serving life without parole for a crime he claims he didn’t commit; week by week, Koenig, a former journalist on the Baltimore Sun, takes us through the various uncertainties around the case.

Was Syed set up by his shifty friend and star witness Jay, who confessed to helping him bury the body (and is now free under a plea bargain) yet whose account of the day is sketchy and contradictory? Was the jury too willing to believe Syed, a star athlete and typical all-American teen at school and good Muslim boy at home, was driven to commit an honour killing? Why were the police so seemingly uninterested in interviewing key witnesses, including drunken school janitor and convicted flasher Mr S?

Yet the story is not a straightforward miscarriage-of-justice tale: Syed, for all his easy charm, is certainly still in the frame. Yet, with one episode to go, it seems unlikely that a CSI-style piece of forensic evidence or a courtroom confession will give us the answer. Koenig, whose chatty style belies her evidently painstaking research, still only has the same information as the original jury and legal teams had to work from: friends’ and acquaintances’ unreliable memories and potentially self-serving accounts from witnesses.

Koenig’s casual, almost folksy style sometimes jars with the lurid spectator sport she is presenting – that of picking through a real-life murder of a teenager. Yet the question which lurks beneath Koenig’s inquiry is a profound one: what are the limits to reasonable doubt? Is it good enough to find someone guilty simply because it’s the most likely explanation? Is lack of certainty a justifiable reason to let a possible murderer walk free and a murdered teen go unavenged? Can you convict someone, in the absence of compelling evidence either way, on the basis of how they strike you?

These are not new questions, of course, although Koenig’s see-saw account brings to life how frighteningly arbitrary these judgements can become in the heat of a criminal trial. Yet it’s striking that Serial has struck a cultural nerve at a time when the principle of presumed innocence is being undermined by campaigners calling for victims to be given more of a voice in criminal proceedings. Inevitably, Serial itself has come under fire for failing to give enough focus to the murdered Lee or her family – who, understandably, refused to take part – as though that would solve the fundamental question of Syed’s guilt.

Serial may be, stylistically, a true-crime story for the chattering classes. But it is much more than a prurient whodunnit. In taking a stand for the presumption of innocence, and asserting the importance of rigorous due process, it is compelling and hard-hitting listening.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

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