'Serial' takes the stand: How a podcast became a character in its own narrative
By MONICA HESSE | The Washington Post | Published: February 8, 2016
BALTIMORE — The post-conviction relief hearing for convicted Baltimore killer and "Serial" star Adnan Syed was supposed to last two days and was then rescheduled for three, which then became four, or more — it forged on on Monday — as the bailiff continued to prowl the aisle for illicit cellphones and reporters doggedly exhausted their notebook reserves, and attorneys nitpicked and swanned their way through witness after witness in a big maroon courtroom, and it turned out that one of the players was not a person but the world's most popular podcast, with 80 million downloads.
"Did there come a time when you had a conversation with a famous radio reporter named Sarah Koenig?" Syed's attorney asked on the hearing's first day when Syed's former classmate Asia McClain took the stand to discuss what she recalled about the crime, the 1999 death of Syed's ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
"I didn't really know it was a podcast," replied McClain. "Because I guess nobody really knew what podcasts were then."
But McClain had indeed talked to Koenig, she said, and she had "binge-listened" the resulting 12-episode program, "Serial," when it aired in 2014. This binge-listening is when she realized that her involvement in the case had been misunderstood for more than a decade. She wanted now to correct the record. "As Sarah said in the podcast, maybe (my testimony) is important."
The testimony in question was that McClain, who is now, like Syed, 34 years old, remembered talking with Syed in the public library, at precisely the time the state maintained he was attacking Lee in a Best Buy parking lot. But Syed's original defense attorney had never contacted McClain to ask her to serve as an alibi, and 17 years later, his current attorney won this rare hearing in order to determine whether that oversight constituted incompetence and warranted a new trial.
Would the hearing have happened without "Serial"? Would it have resulted in a fraction of the media attention and public awareness?
How does one comprehend a trial that begets a podcast that might beget another trial, in a world in which Internet sleuths on Reddit message boards can dedicate more time to parsing potential clues than a hundred dedicated municipal police departments? Syed's hearing is happening at a time when the lines between the legal system and the entertainment industry, justice and prurience are becoming increasingly fuzzy.
"Serial," in which Koenig, a public radio producer, painstakingly re-examined old case evidence and discovered new evidence, was shortly followed by "The Jinx," an HBO miniseries in which filmmakers excavated the alleged crimes of millionaire Robert Durst — suspected of three murders, convicted of none.
Both were followed by "Making a Murderer," a Netflix original that followed the trial of Wisconsinite Steven Avery. Avery, who had previously been wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of one woman, had recently been arrested for the murder of another; documentarians were given intimate access to Avery's family and legal defense team, and the resulting 10-episode show strongly favored Avery's innocence.
And now fans and listeners, conspiracy theorists and lookie-loos had all migrated to Baltimore, in what was shaping up to be the 13th installment of "Serial" — a never-aired, unexpected finale. They started lining up at 6 a.m. on the hearing's first day, arriving before the friends and family of Adnan Syed and before the bereaved supporters of Hae Min Lee, concerned about getting good seats.
A semi-retired lumber manager had snagged a $300 plane ticket to fly to Maryland from California and was providing regular updates to his wife back home. A nurse had driven up from Alexandria, Virginia, armed with a medical background that told her Lee's autopsy must have been wrong, Syed must be innocent. Another nurse came from Hanover County, Virginia, and met up with two women who had driven in from Delaware, and on Friday all three had sneaked into the media section of the courtroom because the view was better. They produced notebooks to help them blend in and evade the bailiff.
"I was going back and forth with 'Serial,'" said Jeannine Cannito, one of the three usurpers, to her two Delaware friends. Then she started listening to "Undisclosed," a "Serial" spinoff produced by the defense team. Then she started listening to "Serial Dynasty," an "Undisclosed" spinoff produced by a Michigan firefighter, which then spun off of itself into a more general crime podcast called "Truth and Justice."
"I'd just like closure," one of the Delaware friends replied, which was a common sentiment, that one purpose of the hearing was not only to determine the future of a man who had been in prison since he was 17, but rather to give a final spoiler alert to listeners of a radio show.
The hosts of "Undisclosed" were in the courtroom, as were many of the players originally featured in "Serial," as was Sarah Koenig herself, whom attendees disparaged in private (they thought she was biased: for Adnan, against Adnan, some way, any way) but then asked to take selfies with when they ran into her in person. She was reserved a seat — by other deferential reporters, not the court — in the front pew, just behind a broad, bearded, shackled Syed, and where she heard her own name and her own work evoked again and again.
"You are familiar with the 'Serial' podcast?" Syed's attorney, Justin Brown, asked one witness, an investigator hired to retrace some of the original casework. The investigator, Sean Gordon, said that he was. "Have you had a chance to review many transcripts of that podcast?" the attorney asked, and then displayed a portion of a "Serial" transcript that seemed to indicate that Koenig had managed to interview, on-air, a potential witness that the investigator himself couldn't find.
"You spoke with an individual named Sarah Koenig?" the prosecutor, Thiru Vignarajah, asked another witness, a librarian whose testimony related to whether or not there were surveillance cameras in the potential alibi library.
"I don't remember her name," said the librarian, Michelle Hamiel.
"But you talked to her." In regards to the camera's existence, "You said, 'Probably yes, I'm gonna say yes.'"
The news to come out of the hearing so far hasn't been news, not really, not to anyone who had followed the various podcasts or cared to submit a Maryland Public Information request for the case file. McClain testified that she specifically remembered the day of Lee's disappearance because it was followed by a snowstorm that stranded her at her boyfriend's house. The prosecution countered that it had been an ice storm.
McClain seemed unfazed: Snow? Ice? It was bad weather, she was at her boyfriend's, it was 17 years ago. A pair of dueling cellphone experts argued about whether a missing fax cover sheet, if included, would have changed the testimony of a different cellphone expert whose original statement had placed Syed's phone near Lee's burial site. Both tried to parse the technology from 1999, a Paleozoic era in terms of cellphones.
The question of the fax cover sheet was also uncovered post-"Serial," due to "Serial," and the end result was ... unclear, as of yet. The granting of a new trial? The overturning of a conviction? The uneasy growing sense that, in a time when police conduct is increasingly being scrutinized, the best way to get to the bottom of an investigation is to place it in the hands of motivated true-crime listeners?
Recently, two public petitions to overturn Steven Avery's conviction gained more than 600,000 signatures. And, in timing that HBO could only view as a ratings jackpot, Robert Durst was arrested the night before the final episode of "The Jinx" aired, in part based on evidence — a letter — that was uncovered during the filming of the documentary. "What the hell did I do?" Durst muttered into a microphone he didn't realize was still turned on at the end of the finale. "Killed them all, of course."
Shortly after the conclusion of Friday's proceedings, they were already being dissected by fans on message boards, who had been following via news updates and Twitter. People who had claimed they only needed to hear details of McClain's testimony and then they would know for sure whether Syed was guilty, now, after hearing those details, decided there was still more information they needed. Something else McClain could have been misremembering. Some other undiscovered conspiracy.
Koenig, who had gone back to her hotel room every night and provided her own take on the proceeding in the form of miniature podcasts, announced in her last update that she wouldn't be returning for the Monday continuation. It hadn't been anticipated, she hadn't worked it into her schedule, she had to move on. The judge instructed everyone else to be back in the courtroom by 9:30 sharp after the weekend, for what was less the trial of the century than a hearing very particular to these times.