Last week, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge delivered a bombshell development to the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in the 2000 strangling of his ex-girlfriend and classmate, Hae Min Lee. The judge vacated the conviction of Syed, ordering a new trial due to a failure of his attorney to challenge unreliable evidence.
For just about any other murder case, such a decision would not attract national attention. But because Syed was the subject of “Serial,” a true-crime podcast produced by “This American Life” that quickly became one of the most downloaded audio series ever, he has become an Internet sensation among those who forcefully advocate his innocence.
It’s hard to understate the phenomenon that is the Syed case. The “Serial” investigation inspired another podcast series called “Undisclosed,” developed by Rabia Chaudry — a friend of Syed — and a few lawyers to examine the case at an even more granular level. That, in turn, inspired yet another podcast on the case called “Serial Dynasty” (now a general crime series called “Truth & Justice”). Asia McClain, a witness in the case who claims to have seen Syed at a library at the time of the murder, recently published a book about her experience. Chaudry is also planning to release a book on Syed’s story as well. There are also countless threads on Reddit dedicated to the story and plenty of blogs: All of this to figure out what happened during a 21-minute interval in a Baltimore neighborhood one day in 1999. “Obsession” seems to be a safe word here.
While this is just the latest instance of the true-crime genre going viral on the Internet, some have already suggested that journalistic series such as “Serial” are changing the way people view criminal justice in the United States — and more than that, are upending cases that seemed settled long ago. Is this a threat to the legal system, or is it simply a healthy and intellectual form of entertainment? Is it problematic to let the popular forces of the Internet tear apart cases more than a decade after convictions were settled in the courtroom? Indeed, amateur detective threads on Reddit have a tendency to turn into nasty and speculative witch hunts.
At first glance, it’s terrifying to think that the emotional tenor of social media might be gaining undue influence on criminal justice. This is especially true in response to long-form investigations of criminal cases by journalists, who often mash up the hundreds of hours of testimony and evidence into personalized stories that plot out the lives of suspects and their families. No doubt, these stories are designed with a purpose, to tug on our heartstrings or to perhaps even to make us doubt whether someone is truly guilty. As a result, we blur the line between entertainment and in-depth investigations.
Ideally, we want those charged with crimes to be fairly judged by an unbiased jury of their peers, and, in theory, convincing 12 people chosen from society to unanimously find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a pretty high standard. But at the same time, no one can deny that there’s plenty of room for error in the jury system, especially with regard to violent crimes. Jurors — no matter how they are filtered during the selection process — aren’t immune to bias, especially when the mother of a victim killed in a grisly murder sits distraught in the courtroom for weeks on end, as was the case in Syed’s trial. They must also make their decisions based solely on the information presented to them, which might be flawed due to how detectives and prosecutors collect evidence.
So perhaps the virtue of these true-crime stories isn’t how they affect specific cases (indeed, without new and objective evidence that calls into question criminal convictions, it’s important — for the sake of the rule of law — to let decisions stand). Instead, series such as “Serial” could have a positive impact on how ordinary Americans — the people who sit on juries and elect local prosecutors and judges — view criminal trials.
Maybe we’ll be more willing to hold those running for local offices accountable for presenting fair cases and working to eliminate bias against the poor or minorities. Maybe we’ll be more appropriately skeptical of cases built on witness testimony alone, or question whether investigators used intimidation or unfair interrogation to get inaccurate information from witnesses. Maybe we’ll even be better informed of our right as jurors to overturn statutes in cases where we think the law doesn’t apply.
The true-crime genre might even serve as an effective check against the unsupportable expectations raised by fictional TV courtroom dramas, where there’s always enough forensic evidence from the crime scene for investigators to quickly and effectively identify the killer. Of course, that rarely ever happens in reality — evidence is clunky and often doesn’t give us perfect answers, as we want it to. Those who have dove into the intricacies of the Syed trial know this all too well, and as a result, probably have a much better grasp of forensic analysis than their “CSI”-watching counterparts.
What’s more, true-crime fans on social media seem to be predominantly young. As such, we might slowly be building up a generation whose primary introduction to criminal justice is binging on hours worth of podcasts and Netflix episodes that explain legal standards and parse through evidence ad nauseam. We might have the most legally literate population in history.
So yes, we might be going overboard with the amount of time we spend on these cases. But overall, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of criminal justice.