Serial fans are insane. Last week, I penned a relatively minor story about the appeal hearing that convicted murderer Adnan Syed has scheduled for mid January. Someone passed along my story in a tweet—including my Twitter handle—to a gaggle of fellow passionate listeners. So for the past 24 hours, my Twitter feed has been afire. I’ve been pinged every time one of these enthusiasts bubbles with anticipation at this morning’s new stream—an anticipation heightened by the show’s week off during Thanksgiving. “It’s nearly Thursday. Happy #serial.” “must re-listen to last ep to prep.” As the 6 a.m. download approached, “Furiously refreshing Serial #ep10.” “HURRY UP.”
And then, finally, mercifully, Ira Glass said, “Previously, on Serial…,” and the podcast’s bouncing theme music ushered in a new chapter of the ongoing murder-mystery phenomenon. And my Twitter notification feed went, finally, silent.
“The Best Defense is a Good Defense” was a podcast version of a “bottle episode,” a self-contained chapter that didn’t necessarily move the narrative forward but instead focused on a pivotal—and polarizing—figure: Syed’s attorney, the late Cristina Gutierrez. In 2000, when Syed went to trial, she was a much sought-after Baltimore defense attorney, revered for her pugnacious courtroom demeanor. She was also subsequently disbarred in 2001, and her performance in the Syed case is a large part of the reason the state is currently considering whether he received ineffective defense at trial and should be considered for post-conviction relief.
Did Syed get a fair trial?
Before aiming her sights on Gutierrez, Sarah Koenig considered the role that anti-Muslim prejudice may have played in Syed’s arrest and conviction. Syed’s mother confided that she blames racism, a notion Koenig initially doubted. But then she played the audio from the bail hearing, where the prosecutor turned the strong courtroom presence of the local Islamic community—there to support Syed—into a potential threat, weaving in bigoted half-truths, later proved false, that they were “aiders and abettors” that made Syed a flight risk to Pakistan.
The murder and trial, remember, took place before the Sept. 11 attacks. But Koenig paints a picture of casual bigotry that seeps into the proceedings, from a science teacher’s remark that Syed once said he had an uncle who could make people disappear to the way Jay slightly tweaks his testimony to hammer home the point that Syed prayed to Allah. Then she goes a tad too far in that direction, presenting the ignorant commentary of the individual who created the Bodies of Leakin Park website (“…who in their right mind lets their daughter date a man named ‘Adnan Musud Syed’…”) as further evidence of… of… the existence of prejudice in the world? I’m not sure it’s her strongest argument—especially since it seems those words were posted six years ago, years after the trial.
Clearly, though, Gutierrez was concerned about those sentiments in the jury box. She spent the bulk of her opening comments at trial fighting that immigrant/”other” perception—to a degree that it grated on the judge, who interrupted her several times and urged her to wrap it up. That sounds like a horrible first step for Syed’s defense, and though we’ve heard Gutierrez’s courtroom voice on tape in previous episodes, her extended monologues make it more clear why a jury may not have loved her in large doses. By all accounts, she was an accomplished litigator, but to these novice ears, she sounds shrill—like a weary third-grade teacher who’s always on the verge of yelling at a student to take the gum out of his mouth.
Gutierrez may have been a “pitbull on the pants-leg of justice,” as the judge said—but that grating personality took a toll on her clients’ fortunes, too. Her behavior was a primary factor in the first trial being declared a mistrial. We’d been told that there were two trials, and as a legal layman, I just assumed the first trial ended because of some spectacular Court TV-level development. Instead, it collapsed because of a relatively petty argument and outburst in which Gutierrez yelled that she wouldn’t stand idly by while the judge called her a liar. The jury heard the exchange, possibly tainting their opinion of the proceedings, so Gutierrez called for a mistrial. The judge agreed.
Just like that, they had to reboot. Koenig makes the case that the first jury seemed to be siding with Syed at that time, so that becomes a huge what-if. The second trial seemed to wear on Gutierrez, whom we later found out was suffering from poor health and perhaps poor judgement. Koenig and Adnan both explain how muddled her cross-examinations were, how it was difficult to follow her main points while she rambled on and on. And just hearing snippets of her nasally delivery, it’s easy to understand how a juror may have missed her main thrust or tuned out altogether.
But then comes a potential break for the defense: Jay, who spent days on the witness stand, testified that the prosecutor arranged for the pro-bono lawyer who negotiated his plea deal. Think about that again: the prosecutor who had charged Jay with a major felony provided him with his lawyer, who subsequently worked the deal that kept him out of jail. He even met the prosecutor and the woman who became his high-priced attorney on the same day, in the same meeting—just before they went to a judge to finalize the plea deal. Even to me, that sounds fishy.
Still, in 2014, that potentially damning development dissipates slightly (to this listener) as she rants about it. (“I’m not. Chewing. Gum, Mrs. Gutierrez!”)
Gutierrez’s post-trial career quickly went south, as did her health. In earlier Serial episodes, Syed’s friends accused Gutierrez of throwing the trial on purpose, in order to extend her services throughout the appeal process. She eventually ran into more trouble, bullying additional money from clients for legal services that never materialized. Was she using the money for her own medical bills? She eventually agreed to be disbarred, and the state fund for grievances against lawyers who misuse funds eventually returned more than $282,000 to her clients.
In his most recent appeal (of his appeal), Syed claims Gutierrez failed to provide an effective defense. Specifically, she never contacted the alibi witness, Asia McLean, and she never pursued any plea-bargain conversations that Syed had requested. Whether these accounts are true or not, it seems like Syed didn’t get Gutierrez’ A-game when she was defending his life.
It’s interesting to hear Syed talk about seeking a plea deal. Koenig was surprised by that revelation—due to Syed’s consistent proclamations of innocence—and I feel the same way. In most cases, the defense attorney has to drag a client to the point of considering a plea—especially an innocent client. Syed justified himself fairly well—but this is a 34-year-old man talking, not the teenager who had to make that call in 2000. If he truly wanted to make a deal back then, what does that say about everything we’ve heard from him up to this point?
The Jan. 14 court date that got Serial fans excited is still a giant long shot for Syed. “The chances of getting [parole] are so slim, for anyone with a life sentence for first-degree murder, but especially if you don’t show remorse,” Koenig said, to wrap the episode. “Because, you know, what if he’s a psychopath, right?… Next time on Serial.”
Serial is a creative high-wire act, and the recent surge in its popularity is only making it more challenging for Koenig and her team. Remember, these aren’t podcasts made months ago that have been sitting on a desktop, waiting to be unleashed on its audience. At this point, they’re being made within shouting distance of the online echo chamber—which can skew storytelling priorities. Koenig’s epilogue about the upcoming appeal seemed directly related to the recent news stories, which themselves seemed primarily to exist primarily to feed a hunger for any new details; that January court appointment has been in the works since before the first podcast was released. The line between journalism and entertainment has never been more blurred; the irony is that that blurred line might conceivably have an impact on the upcoming ruling. There’s not a jury in this case—just the millions who are listening.