I'm sure by now, most of you have either binge-listened or at least heard of the podcast phenomena that is Serial. Birthed from the wonderful nerdtopia radio series This American Life, Serial focuses on a single story, reexamining the details and the people involved, done with the intent of providing fresh new answers. Inevitably, it creates more questions and gives us all plenty to talk about. The first season -- free for download off iTunes or the Serial site -- was about a murder of a young high school girl named Hae Min Lee in 1999, in Baltimore, Maryland. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was investigated based on a friend, Jay, who claimed Syed came to him to help bury Lee's body. Syed refutes Jay's account and says Jay's story is a total fabrication, he had nothing to do with her murder, and a confusing web of accounts over his whereabouts and motives are all explored in the 12-part podcast by host Sarah Koenig. That's the shortest way of describing what Serial is, without spoiling anything if you haven't yet listened. But this post isn't about the endless strings of conjecture, more about the phenomena of true crime obsession, and how this story is quietly changing the way we look at justice and starting real conversations.
Everyone loves a good mystery, especially one that actually happened, not just some crime show with an acronym in the title. Crime has a lurid attraction to people; it's not just about the satisfaction of using logic and evidence bring a criminal to justice, it's totally about the scare factor, and the opportunity to peek into the darkest parts of the human condition. And I think that's why Serial really caught on with people, because it wasn't the typical crime taken to extremes that attracts tabloid headlines. Adnan Syed, who was convicted of Hae Min Lee's murder, isn't the faceless Bogeyman or a lurking murderer with a hook for a hand, he's a young man now in his twenties, serving a life sentence, and having his interviews with Koenig via a prison phone. I don't want to inject my own personal thoughts on the investigation as a whole, but whether you believe Syed should or shouldn't be in jail, Serial puts a human face on everyone involved, and that's what keeps us engrossed. By taking time to humanize all the individuals involved with the case, showing both their good and bad sides, your ability to form a confident opinion feels about as helpless as a flag, flapping in a windstorm.
Is this entertainment? Don't kid yourself -- yes, it totally is. We are absolutely engrossed in these strangers' lives, and unlike the supposed "reality" television that has completely dulled our senses, the fact that this is truly a life and death situation provides a vicarious thrill. The Human Circus isn't anything new, we've been entertained with derring-do and abject gore since the Roman Colosseum days. I'm not sure how to feel about that outside of a sheepish admission of guilt. I certainly don't maintain that listening to Serial is somehow moving the wheels of Justice, but I think it's sparked the art of conversation again. We're not just parroting information fed by a Facebook page, we're referencing something, discussing it, and often debating over it. This exchange is a positive thing. We're not arguing political/religious principles which really have no right answer, we're questioning facts and motives, ultimately taking a healthy, critical look at the shortcomings of our justice system. The fact that these people are strangers give the luxury of being able to look at their personal accounts as raw data, and the podcast is designed to leave you with a lot of unanswered questions. You're allowed to change your mind, to be confused, and just be lost in the information. It's not like a procedural crime show, where everything gets investigated, solved, and taken to trial within the span of an hour. This is a mystery with real people, life-changing consequences, and the unanswered questions and lingering ennui are a fitting result at the price of it being entertainment.
That leads me to another true crime mystery that gained a wider audience as a result of Serial's popularity -- the 8-part documentary series called The Staircase. It chronicles the investigation, case-building, and trial of author Michael Peterson, who was arrested for the 2001 death of his second wife, Kathleen Hunt. She was found lying at the bottom of a staircase, blood everywhere, and investigators questioned Peterson's claim that it was a terrible accident, that a combination of too much wine and some vicodin had made her lose balance, causing the fall. The whole series can be viewed on YouTube -- I highly recommend not looking up details of the case, if you're unfamiliar with it, that way you're following the story in real-time, with the documentary.
Unlike Serial, which is about the reflection of events, and its underlying themes of motive and memory, The Staircase is chronological, and you allow the story to take the lead, bringing you to unexpected places. Again, without spoiling anything, I will say, I went into The Staircase with a forensic bias, thanks to all those acronym-titled crime shows. There's so much blood! How can this be an accidental fall down the stairs? Get the CSI team and Dexter on this, STAT! The documentary crew primarily follows Peterson and his family, and his defense team as they build his case, so you have this sense that they're trying to convince you of his innocence before the trial even begins. Your mind wants to trust in the power of forensics (TV told us so!), but you realize how flimsy the reliance on scientific experts can be. Hard data can be as inconclusive as personal accounts. And while the intent of justice is to be equal, the people serving it are not --sometimes the demeanor of a forensic expert can win over or totally turn off a juror, regardless of their testimony.
There's a moment where Michael Peterson is driving through his city, and he speaks very truthfully about the inequities of the justice system. He fully admits his White Privilege, that he's fortunate to be of the upper-middle class, with the ability to afford a high end legal team, and that if he were assigned a public defender, he'd probably be pressured into admitting guilt and accepting a plea bargain. Whether you believe Peterson to be innocent or guilty, his words ring a sharp truth.
Peterson's case has echoes of the OJ Simpson trial, except that while the subject of race became a shield for Simpson's defense's argument, the subject of sexuality/morality becomes the weapon for Peterson's prosecuting attorneys. Peterson's character comes under the microscope when it's revealed early on that he had engaged in extramarital affairs, more specifically, with men. The affairs speak to motive, but one can't help but think that his bisexuality placed Peterson in a negative light in juror's eyes. This adds to the engrossing complexity of the story, and thoughtful fodder for discussion.
So much is said over being thankful that we are not victims of senseless crimes, so the inversion of that would be the fear of helplessness if you are accused and possibly convicted of something you didn't do. The people featured in both crimes are not murderous ghouls; they seem normal, even likeable, and we're likely to find more in common with them, save for a criminal investigation. That's perhaps another attraction for mysteries like these. It's as much of an examination of the human condition and its moral limits, as it is a search for justice.
Jaunty Fine Print: Logo from Serial Podcast site, alteration by Denise Sakaki