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Monday, December 01, 2014
Serial Killer

The podcast show Serial has become something of an American phenomenon.  Ten weeks after debuting on NPR's weekend show This American Life, the podcast now reportedly gets 1 million listeners a week.  I recently heard about the show and thought I'd give it a listen.

The podcast examines the circumstances surrounding the murder of a young (17) Korean-American girl named Hae Lee in Baltimore in 1999.  The investigation soon centered on her most recent ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, also 17 years old back then.  With the confession of a friend of Adnan's named Jay that he helped Adnan bury the body, the police quickly cracked the case and Adnan was sentenced to life in prison.

Sarah Koenig, a former investigative reporter in Baltimore was contacted by friends of Adnan who believed he was actually innocent of the charges, and so she has started her own investigation, which she chronicles weekly in her podcasts.  The show is well-produced and highly entertaining.  But....

I think there is an obvious bias on Koenig's part towards believing in Adnan's innocence.  In a way, this is understandable.  Adnan is currently in jail and so there is no real need for an advocate for his guilt.  In addition, it just makes for a more interesting show.  What entertainment value would there be in a show which examined a 15-year old murder and simply came to the conclusion that the right man is behind bars for the crime?  Especially when you consider that the show originated on NPR, where the listeners presumably are prone to believing that the cops often railroad innocent people.

The concern I have is that the show is purposely attempting to mislead the listeners by highlighting potentially exculpatory evidence and ridiculing or ignoring facts that indicate Adnan is guilty.

For example, consider the very first episode, The Alibi.  It focuses on a girl named Asia, who wrote Adnan fifteen years ago, claiming to have remembered that they were together in the library after school that day, when the murder is supposed to have taken place.  Koenig goes to the library.  Did  they have security cameras back in 1999?  Yes, but simply videotapes which were recorded over on a weekly basis.  Did they have sign-in sheets to use the computers (Adnan says he probably checked his email at the library).  Yes, but just plain pieces of paper that they certainly have not been filing away carefully for fifteen years.

But Koenig did not (at the time) check on the most easily verified piece of corroborating evidence.  Asia recalled that particular day vividly because it was the first day of snow in Baltimore that year.  But when Koenig and her assistants checked the weather records for that day, guess what?  No snow.  It seems likely that Asia was remembering a different day, and in fact her alibi is useless. Keep in mind her that the day of the murder did not stand out as a particularly memorable day at the time.  Hae did go missing but her body was not found until weeks later.

The third episode is similarly wasted on a discussion of the rather weird person who found the body whom police suspected initially as a potential killer.  He had gone into the woods where Hae was buried in a shallow grave in order to take a piss, and noticed her hair.  The guy was a flake; he had been arrested several times for public exhibitionism.

But it should have already been obvious to Koenig that the flasher was not the murderer, because in an earlier episode we had heard the story of Jay.  Jay claimed that Adnan had given him his car and his cellphone earlier that day.  Adnan planned to kill Hae in her vehicle, then call Jay and have him help dispose of the body.  Jay's story was corroborated by a very key piece of evidence; he was able to lead police to Hae's car, which the cops had been searching for unsuccessfully for several weeks.

So it is pretty obvious that Jay was indeed involved to some extent in the murder, and it narrows down the suspect list to Adnan and Jay.  Forget about the guy who found the body, no matter how crazy he seems.

Jay's story is a bit odd.  He claims that Adnan killed Hae in the parking lot of a Best Buy store, then stuffed her body in the trunk of her car.  It seems a rather public place to carry out a murder.  In addition, Jay says that Adnan then called him from a payphone in front of the store,  But nobody can find any record of a payphone ever being there.  Jay also describes them driving all over the area, getting high and not accomplishing what Adnan would probably want--to get back to school for his track practice to establish an alibi for the time of the murder.

But in some key respects, Jay's story does have some corroboration.  Adnan apparently acknowledges loaning Jay his car and cellphone that day.  But Adnan also made a call from that cellphone at the time he claims he would have been at track practice.  In addition, cell tower pings indicate that Adnan's phone was in Leakin Park (where Hae's body was found) at the time Jay claims he and Adnan were burying her.  By that time, Adnan clearly had the phone back in his possession.

As an example of evidence that Koenig ridicules, Hae wrote Adnan a letter telling him to get over her.  Adnan and another girl apparently wrote each other notes on the back of the letter during class--Adnan's in pen and the girl's in pencil.  Afterwards, Adnan apparently wrote (again in ink), "I'm going to kill!"  Koenig laughs it off as something one would find in a cheesy detective novel.

Or consider the motive for the killing.  Hae broke off the relationship with Adnan.  Koenig (and others she talks to) pooh-pooh the notion that this would give him a motive to kill her.  Why people break up with their boyfriends/girlfriends all the time, and very few of them are murdered in response.  But of course it does happen sometimes; it's not completely ridiculous.

Another bit that Koenig has ignored at least so far.  Here's an article on Adnan's current appeal of his conviction.  Keep in mind that Adnan has consistently maintained his innocence.  In the most recent episode, Koenig notes that Adnan's lawyer recommended that he not claim innocence at the sentencing phase of his trial (i.e., after he was convicted).  She also notes that he was angered that the defense attorney requested that the judge consider Hae's murder as a crime of passion, not premeditated, because he considered that as also tacitly admitting his guilt.  But get this detail on the appeal:

Syed's appeal centers on whether Gutierrez failed him when he said she did not investigate a "credible alibi witness" who had seen him at the time of the crime, according to the appeal. That witness, a classmate named Asia McClain, had written Syed a letter saying she had seen him at the Woodlawn branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on Jan. 13, 1999, the day Lee disappeared after school.

Syed's attorney for the appeal, C. Justin Brown, also questions whether Gutierrez failed Syed by not following up on his request to inquire if prosecutors were offering a plea deal.
 Wait a minute! He was interested in a plea deal? That certainly does not fit in with him steadfastly maintaining his innocence.
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