Listen to the Second Season of Serial
Like many people, I listened intently to the first season of the Serial podcast, and its story of the murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent prosecution (and defense) of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. The series took the digital world by storm and greatly increased the popular footprint of the podcasting medium, perhaps permanently. The second anniversary of the release of the final episode of that season is on December 18, 2016.
There was much I liked about the first season of Serial. I liked that producer Sarah Koenig chose a case that, on its surface, didn’t seem to have much of interest to present. It was, as murders go, pretty pedestrian. The state’s theory was that Ms. Lee’s ex-boyfriend killed her out of jealousy because she was seeing other people. That scenario happens pretty often. At his trial, Adnan Syed was convicted without fanfare on the strength of a witness who confessed to helping Mr. Syed dispose of the body. Neither the accused nor the victim came from prominent families. No great legal precedent came out of the case. The story was not national news when the murder occurred in 1999 and was forgotten by everyone except friends or family since. It was just a fairly commonplace crime to everyone except friends and family.
Fifteen years later, the case grabbed the nation’s attention. People I knew with no connection to the criminal justice system or the legal world whatsoever were riveted by the story, by some of the lingering holes in the prosecution’s theory, and by the mistakes that the defense attorney made in one of her last big trials before her disbarment and subsequent death. I knew people who developed theories of what happened and were stunned at how Adnan was convicted despite the police evidently knowing (to my friends’ minds) little about Ms. Lee’s final hours and days or exactly what happened to her. Some were disappointed that the end of the series brought no resolution or certainty. There was no big reveal.
I was more surprised by my friends’ reactions than by the facts of the case. I am accustomed to and comfortable with the fact that we generally cannot reconstruct precisely what happened surrounding a crime. The surprise is lessened further when we realize that in 1999 there was no such thing as a smart phone. My iPhone displays the same time as every other iPhone in my time zone, precise to the second. If I am very lucky, I might remember the precise time an event of significance happened, if I coincidentally look at my phone right before or after. I can relay that time to another person, and if other people saw different things at different known times, a reliable time line can be generated. This is a dicey proposition in 2016; impossible in 1999. I am accustomed to doubts being unresolved and details being forever hidden.
I actually found the less popular second season, telling the story of captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl to be far more interesting and more connected to my work as a public defender. Bowe Bergdahl was an enlisted man in the Army who walked away from his military assignment in Afghanistan only to be captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for five years. He was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The desertion charge carries a possible life sentence in prison. Where Adnan Syed is either innocent and should be free, or is guilty and should be subject to the punishment we think appropriate for deliberate murder, what Bowe Bergdahl did is relatively settled. He certainly broke the rules of military justice, but the rest of the inquiry into the case encapsulates what line defenders face every day.
The question in the Bergdahl case wasn’t “did he do it”? The questions were, who is Bowe Bergdahl; what crime fits his conduct; why did he do it; how did he get to the point in his life where he was in a position to do what he did; were his action partially justified, morally if not legally; and what punishment, if any, constitutes justice in the case? These questions are far more interesting to me as a public defender than a straight-up whodunit. Where the story investigating the Hae Min Lee murder captured the attention of the American public 15 years later by hitting many of the same beats you can see in Law & Order reruns or in Dateline NBC newscasts, Sarah Koenig’s work in the Bergdahl case captured the every day realities of life in front of the bench in court, trying your best to help clients who have been damaged by their surroundings, and trying to make sure the system sees them as whole people instead of as their worst acts.