“I don’t think you’ll ever have 100 percent or any type of certainty about it. The only person in the world who can have that is me… and, for what it’s worth, whoever did it.” —Adnan Syed
Your honor, the podcast rests.
After a year of investigative research masterfully molded into 12 riveting podcasts, Sarah Koenig and her Serial colleagues signed off with some new hope for imprisoned murderer Adnan Syed—but also troubling suspicions that he had murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. Though facts that determine beyond reasonable doubt whether Syed is guilty or innocent still prove elusive, many listeners tuned in merely to hear whether Koenig would volunteer her own personal verdict, especially since her warm long-distance relationship with Adnan over the phone was the spine of the series. In the finale, she admitted to having the same conflicted feelings as so many obsessed listeners, and shared feelings of futility about rushing the last episode together when so much remained unresolved.
“The back and forth hasn’t let up, after all of this time,” she confided to the audience. “Even into this very week, and—I kid you not—into this very day that I’m writing this”
“If don’t mind me asking, you don’t really have no ending?” Syed asked her, during one of their very recent phone conversations.
“I mean… do I have an ending?,” she asked, half rhetorically. “Uhhhmmmm.”
Of course I have an ending, she promised. And she did. But first, she shared some new information, including one potential bombshell. The University of Virginia’s Innocence Project uncovered another 1999 Baltimore murder that was belatedly solved this year when DNA evidence was linked to a felon named Ronald Lee Moore. Now dead after committing suicide in 2007, Moore had been just released in Baltimore when Lee went missing in 1999, and he immediately became the serial-killer suspect that the Project needed to file a motion to finally test the DNA samples from Lee.
The other season-finale twist, if you will, was the introduction of Don, Lee’s boyfriend. In another example of how the podcast’s enormous popularity had influenced the course of her investigation, Koenig finally spoke to Don months after he first declined the opportunity. (Don hadn’t even known about Jay until he started listening to the podcast.) As a result of his initial silence, some listeners had chalked him up as a potential suspect. Koenig didn’t think so, based on her recollection of her conversation with him—if anything, the one juicy takeaway was Don’s story of how the irate prosecutor yelled at him for not testifying that Adnan was creepy.
Another peripheral figure jumped on the phone, too: a porn-shop co-worker of Jay’s named Josh who just found out about Serial. (I know I live in a geeky public-radio bubble, but how is it possible to have been even tangentially related with a high-profile murder case and not know that millions of people are currently obsessed with it? J’accuse, Josh!) Josh painted a picture that confirmed Jay’s claims that Adnan was threatening him during the police investigation.
Some deep-deep research into outdated phone agreements poked some holes into the damning Nisha Call, the two-plus minute call from Adnan’s cell phone that seemed to implicate him in the chain of events surrounding the murder. Then there was the completely befuddling call log, especially the 3:21 call, when Jay and Jen testified to conflicting information, and the prosecution settled for a version of events that also meant Jay called her landline from Adnan’s cell phone while he was at her house! Who really had the phone that afternoon!?
When it came time to finally weigh the evidence, Koenig and her producers found themselves right where they started in October: weighing Jay’s potential lies against Adnan’s potential lies. Or were they both lying? (Nods.)
Koenig conveniently gave the floor to the show’s resident Vulcan, producer Dana Chivvis, who piled up the ridiculously unlucky and terrible coincidences that had to occur to Adnan that day for him to be innocent. At first, I thought this was Koenig’s strategy to personally sidestep making a definitive judgement, or at least to excuse herself from making the case against a person she’s become friendly with and has to talk to on the phone this week.
But Koenig didn’t duck out, even when Adnan opened the door for her to take the easy way out. “I think you should just go down the middle,” he said. “In a sense, you leave it up the audience to determine.”
“As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed,” she finally concluded. “I have to acquit. Even if, in my heart of hearts, I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors.”
“…Even IF, in my heart of hearts, I think Adnan killed Hae,…”
I interpreted that “if” as not being a hypothetical, so I almost gasped when she said that. Because as much as I wanted to know about Syed’s actual guilt or innocence, I was nearly as fascinated by what Koenig herself thought. She’s become a central character in this ordeal, whether she likes it or not, and her own verdict carries dramatic weight if nothing else.
People have questioned why Serial can’t extend this season until a more definite conclusion can be reached. Syed’s “Hail Mary” appeal is scheduled for January, and that DNA test could be the game-changer that explains everything. But I figure a year of anyone’s life is enough time spent digging into a 15-year-old crime. That’s not to say that it’s not worth additional investigation; just that Koenig has pushed this story as far as a sane person can reasonably be expected to. She and her team have done their jobs—as journalists, as storytellers—and done them well.
Last week’s episode closed with Koenig reading from Syed’s 18-page single-spaced letter to her about his life since Lee died. It closed with an appeal for Koenig to read it again if she still had doubts about him, but the second time, “please imagine that I really am innocent and then maybe it will make sense to you.”
That’s the place where we all are now. Syed killed Lee. Or he didn’t. He’s guilty or innocent. Not both. And we can look back on these 12 episodes of Serial through both those prisms to help see what is actually most likely and logical. In those competing mindsets, he’s either a manipulative monster or a tragically unfortunate victim of circumstance.