Serial Podcast Needs a Private Investigator

blog-serialI listened to the Serial podcast in two ways, as a former journalist and as a private investigator. We tend to be excessively critical when we watch, read or listen to something we know something about or do for a living. I discuss the show as a private eye who handles criminal defense investigations and then offer input as a former reporter.

Serial is a wildly popular podcast from 2014 that examines the 1999 homicide of high school senior Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, Maryland. Narrator and journalist Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, tells the story of the homicide, the ensuing trials. The program features jailhouse interviews with the man convicted of the murder, victim’s former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, a charismatic and charming defendant. Syed was largely convicted on the testimony of his former acquaintance, Jay Wild, who cooperated with police and received a light sentence of probation as an accessory after the fact.

I commend the show for its scope, thoroughness and entertaining way that it takes listeners into the lives of most of the people associated with the victim and defendant. It captures the imperfections of a police investigation, a flawed criminal defense, the tedium and confusion of a trial and the inherent failure of human memory. It’s no small feat to get witnesses to go on tape and be recorded for a sensitive subject. (I have not read other reviews or blogs of the show because I do not yet want to be influenced. This is column is my raw reaction. For some brevity I’m assuming a certain level of familiarity with the program.)

I have worked on about five homicide cases in a criminal defense capacity and many more felony criminal defense cases. As a private investigator you are a critical part of the defense team. You tend to meet the client and friendly witnesses right from the beginning and, budget permitting, stay with them through to trial’s conclusion. You often get called as a witness.  And yet Serial has no real interviews with any private investigators who worked on Adnan’s case. Why not? Did his attorney use her own staff on the case? There never seemed to be a concerted effort from the beginning to line up possible alibi witnesses. Were all members of the track team interviewed or was it only the coach? Adnan Syed was recently granted an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel, including his attorney not interviewing a potential alibi witness at the time. My point is that a private investigator should have been in the middle of the action during the investigation and trials.

To its credit, the show does seek advice from many outside experts, in matters of cell phone records and cell towers, how the crime scene was processed and the quality of police investigation. Veteran private investigators would have perhaps helped the show as much if not more than law students at the University of Virginia Innocence Project. On the final episode, the show devotes several minutes to a law student exploring fact that at the time of the murder a serial killer was active in Baltimore County. But what obviously shoots down the serial killer theory is Jay knowing where the victim’s car had been ditched and telling police where it was. Would Jay have been in cahoots with a spree killer? Unlikely.

The narrator touches on subjects or introduces information but then does not walk through the door. One on episode she discusses the police practice of interviewing cooperating witness Jay at length before taking his taped statement. What was said off-tape in those interviews? The police would have had written notes and have been required to turn over those notes to the defense. The show in its blog says no such police interview notes exist. What did detectives say at trial when questioned about the suspicious lack of notes in the pre-interview portion of Jay’s statements?

What other police errors were made or omitted? The show’s experts point out that “evidence bias” exists in how crime scenes are processed. Certain items are looked at but not others. DNA might exist but its not tested. I had a case once in Oakland where a homicide victim had a phone number in his pocket. I called the number and the person who answered told me she had been with the victim the day he was killed and that no police officers or detectives ever bothered to call her.

A private investigator on the case would have been tracking down every potential witness but we don’t know whether or not this was done at the time. The show blatantly omits private investigator input so I wonder if and how many might have been used. For any journalist a private investigator is a valuable source.

From a journalistic standpoint the show’s biggest shortcoming is a one-dimensional rendering of the victim. It hurt the program that no one from the victim’s family would talk. I don’t get much of a sense of her personality other than that she was a good person who occasionally got mad at her boyfriend and who fell in love with a new boyfriend. What did she want out of life? What made her tick? It’s not until later episodes that the show discusses her in more detail.

Adnan Syed also at times seems hollow or not fully realized. We just hear over and over that he was a popular, good guy who was friends with everyone. Someone knows more about him from back then.

The narrator, like so many others, also gets played by the charming Adnan. She and many others in the show say innocent people can’t account for details or provide alibis because they had nothing to do with the crime or scene and therefore have no recall. Adnan was interviewed about the victim’s disappearance the night she went missing. He never gives a good explanation for why he could not account much for his time in the afternoon or evening. But as the narrator suggested at one point, did Adnan not come up with a detailed timeline because it could be poked full of holes?

I would have liked a more aggressive line of questioning from the narrator. Or does she ultimately not want to get shut off by Adnan? Let’s face it: No Adnan no Serial. At times the narrator is a little too flip and casual, as if trying to capture a younger market.

The show fails when it goes back to investigate a rumor that Adnan stole “thousands” in cash from his mosque when he was 13. Narrator Koenig gets the truth– that he and his friends took $20 or $40 in cash from time to time as boys. Adnan righteously calls her out for this unfairness. It’s as if she aired it in a gesture to show she was not favoring him.

Serial though succeeds portraying the problems inherent in our justice system. Police got a conviction but certainly did not prove Adnan Syed’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I just can’t believe that it’s someone other than Jay or Adnan who murdered Hae Min Lee.