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Rethinking “Serial”

I love documentaries and true crime. “Serial” was a compelling podcast because it was based on a real life tragedy with elements of deception, love, sex, betrayal, and at the height of its success was dramatically relayed to 2.2 million people. On this blog I originally and uncritically went along with Sarah Koenig’s conclusion that it was reasonable to believe that Adnan was innocent and had been a victim to a great barrage of deception on the famed story changer Jay’s part. It was a stylized story, a sexy story as storytelling goes because of how well Koenig got the story to flow. It was compelling, surprising, and disturbing at the same time. As was reflected with this combination, people love stories that are woven tales of the complex intricacies of real life. With Adnan, Koenig found a relatively likable character who was charismatic and intelligent. However, after a few months of listening to “Serial” sporadically after listening to it relatively non-stop for days on end over the course of a few weeks during the winter, my perspective on Adnan’s innocence to one of guilt and how the techniques Koenig employed effected the overall point of view of Adnan’s innocence.

By far, women are more likely to know their violent attacker rather than experiencing violence from a stranger. While in my other blog post I flirted with the plausible idea that there could have been a serial killer who was targeting Asian women, it is statistically more likely that Hae knew her attacker and that he was or had been an intimate partner. That is why Adnan and Don were initially suspects. While listening to the podcast after the shiny sensationalism faded away, I noticed that Koenig uses this to stir the audience against the police and to create sympathy for how Adnan must have felt to be falsely accused by these two police who did nothing but just look at him. She finds other people to corroborate this perspective, notably a lawyer named Dierdre Enright who runs an innocence project at the University of Virginia School of Law. While Diedre Enright makes some legitimately construcitvely critical statements about the investigation into Adnan’s guilt, notably Jay’s inconsistencies and the lack of hardcore physical evidence, there are still things Koenig does to gloss over some of  the aspects of the case that look badly for Adnan.

However, while Adnan is talking, there are points where it feels like he is too slick to not be lying. When Koenig confesses to having feelings that she and Adnan are friends, he balks and exclaims that she barely knows him. Koenig doesn’t understand, saying that she has talked to him for probably more hours than she has other people she most certainly considers friends. This always struck me because of how poorly Koenig demonstrates she doesn’t understand Adnan’s life. For Adnan, he never escapes the people he lives with, he is constantly around other people as the result of being stuck in prison. He knows who his friends are and are not in prison. Koenig also notes that he does not tell her about any violence in the prison, probably more likely because it is not his business to spread the instances of violence rather than the idea that there aren’t any instances, which is what Koenig infers. There is some naivete to Koenig, she appeals to the white liberal idea that people who say that they were framed were indeed framed, and that the reality that is presented is the truth. Perhaps its how she manipulates the media she uses to tell a tale that ends up being sympathetic to Adnan that makes me take this perspective about her, but she seems too eager to believe Adnan that nothing other than the conclusion of “Serial” where she states she believes in his innocence is possible.

There is also what could be infinitely referred to as “The Jay Problem” and that is figuring how the ever elusive and slick Jay with his differing accounts of what happened on the day in question. Why does he do things like change the name of a mall they allegedly went to, is he correcting himself or making it up? Koenig presents Jay as a villain in the podcast, she casts him in with the prosecution and police that went after the presumptuously innocent Adnan. The point that just because a story changes doesn’t mean the truth isn’t revealed is thrown out in the “Serial” podcast. There is a curious question as to why Jay would frame Adnan. In my previous post, I posited that it may have something to do with drugs, that perhaps there was a deal Jay and Adnan were making and Hae saw, and was killed, and that somehow the convoluted stories that Jay came up with were a way of protecting the drug source. For all I know, my theory is as likely as the one I am positing now, which is that it is fairly likely that Adnan killed Hae and Jay is just getting the story wrong for reasons of being nervous, or stoned, or mixing up his days and times and the simple process of being human getting in the way of having the story go smoothly. Jay did admit to participating in the disturbing act of witnessing the burial of the murdered body of a friend. However, maybe that is why he came clean in the end and using a patchwork of the stories he told to be the truth of the day in question, ended up revealing what happened to Hae.

The courts are taking another look at this case soon. Hopefully something constructive will be revealed.


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My “Serial” Obsession- Political versus Philosophical Justice

before

I have a tumblr, gzeu.tumblr.com, and it is one of my favorite past times, to scroll through the endless series of images people decide to reblog. It is a wonderful source of bizarre fun, “from porn to puppies in seconds” is one of the jokes of  the site (though the Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is trying to do away with all the sex, in the spirit of corporate America) and so when I saw this wonderful image of one of my favorite television characters, Rust Cohle from True Detective, I knew I had to delve into Serial.

I listened to the entirety of Serial in nearly one day. I saved the last episode for the next day because the night was fading into morning, and I wanted to save it. I did the exact same thing with True Detective.

Then I did that weird thing that makes me an eccentric person. I really love cinema, and will often re-watch movies countless times until I can watch them in my head.  I did this with Serial. I fell asleep to Serial,  I ate breakfast to Serial, and I even did yoga while listening to the disturbing tale of this sad murder. Hae Min Lee became a person I thought about while I walked down the street to buy milk. Her mothers testimony at Adnan’s sentencing, about a Korean proverb that observes that when parents die they are buried in the ground, but when a child dies they are buried in the parents heart, made me think about my mother while I cooked macaroni and cheese one night. Clearly, it was very important that we know what happened to Hae. She sounded like the very definition of a good person, a true young lady who had a promising future and was well liked by peers and adults.

So, the thing that makes this story that Sarah Koenig narrates for us compelling is that essentially the entire state’s case rests on the credibility of the state’s witness, Jay. There is something significant; Jay knows where Hae’s car is. But that does not mean that Adnan killed Hae. That is a logical leap of epic proportions. And here is why.

Jay is a noted liar. Jen, the girl Jay was most likely cheating on his girlfriend with, says “Well, Jay lies. Everyone knows Jay lies”. Jay lies about all kinds of things, things that are both benign, and then things that are more shady. When The Intercept interviews Jay, he comes out with this absolutely incredible story that he had never told before.

One thing that everyone agrees is that Jay and Adnan were not “friends”. Adnan says “we didn’t exactly kick it per se” which as Koenig awkwardly seems to translate for seriously suburban white people as “yes we smoked weed together, but we were acquaintances and not friends”. So, in The Intercept interview, Jay now essentially says “so this dude who is not really my friend shows up at my grandma’s house with a dead body in the trunk and says hey you big drug dealer I’m going to rat on you unless you help me bury this body”. The entire trial Jay has this entire story built around seeing Hae’s body at Best Buy, the words “Best Buy” are used about fifty times every episode.

But now, this is not true. And Adnan is sitting in prison.

Or was something else going on entirely? Here’s where I am going to get wildly speculative. Throughout all the interviews with Jay, the detectives are clear to say that Jay was dealing marijuana, only marijuana, and no additional drugs. Jay, who appears to be egocentric to say the least, claims that he was the “criminal element” of Woodlawn. This makes me inclined to believe that Jay was dealing dimebags and thinking that he was a badass, but just because a liar does not mean a true statement cannot be made by that person. Jay gets a sweetheart deal with accomplice to murder after the fact with no prison time, and he gets a lawyer who was hand picked by the prosecution. What we know from watching The Wire, which I am completely aware is a work of fiction but has been critically acclaimed for its realistic storytelling, is that Baltimore is a narcotics town. Any and all towns that are heavy sources of narcotics are corrupt. Was Jay up to something else, and all this knowledge that he had was a thing about protecting a greater source? Everyone agrees that Jay and Adnan were not friends. But were they business associates? In the last episode, Josh, who was a coworker of Jay’s, attested to the fact that “he was scared” after the murder. He also says that he was afraid “people” were after him, “people” connected to the murderer. Did something go wrong while Jay was borrowing Adnan’s car and she got strangled?

It’s a complete theory. But its a question posed in philosophical justice that recognizes the corrupt relationship between government and organized crime.

Getting away from speculation, it is clear that Adnan’s Muslim identity was used against him. The prosecutor arguing against bail for Adnan tells a wild tale of all these “jilted” “Muslim” and “Pakistani” men who kill their lovers who reject them (because come on, all men of Pakistani descent who are Muslim have fantastic terrorist like connections who can get them out of one of the most policed nations on the planet) and then are never brought to justice.

Throughout Serial, Koenig does a good job of making the point that the American justice system has a clear distinction between the idea of what justice is and what justice actually looks like when enacted properly, what could be called the distinction between political justice and philosophical justice. Justice, to prosecutors, is winning the case. The state having absolute power over its citizenry is justice. This is the political definition of justice. As Koenig points out, the detectives were not incompetent. They followed procedure, and a detective on the podcast says that he probably would have followed the same course of action as the detectives did. Philosophical justice is what Koenig was looking for, who did this and why, and why should we believe this person who constantly lies and by all accounts is a shady character? I don’t like to judge people for how they make their living, but Jay was a criminal because he was a marijuana dealer, but to what extent is unclear. His claim is that Adnan threatened him with going to the police because of what he knew about his drug dealing activity.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that murdering someone is worse than dealing some weed. Even a lot of weed. Jay got a sweetheart of a motherfucking deal, and his lawyer was found for him by the prosecutor. That, as Koenig puts it, “is not a thing”. That is insane, and it is corrupt. I believe that the judge made the wrong call by asserting that Jay didn’t know he was getting a benefit. Jay was not stupid, a liar yes but stupid no. He was “street smart”, as described by one juror. He knew that lawyers are worth money.

But why are we getting political justice instead of philosophical justice? Because political justice is easier. This is so cliche, but anyone who has seen The Wire knows that Baltimore is a gritty city. The murder police there must encounter some truly gruesome things. This murder case looked good from a police perspective looking for political justice, to build the best case possible. The lawyers were going to take care of character assassinating Adnan, and everyone else was going to cover their ass on Jay’s case. Why go through extra steps when the suspect’s case was going to go through successfully.

If Jay is now telling the truth that Adnan showed him the body at his grandmother’s house and not at Best Buy, was this Best Buy story a cover for Jay’s marijuana operation? How big of a dealer was Jay anyway? Why is Jay talking about this grandma trunk pop business now, after the podcast, after all the Reddit.com speculation? Why did the prosecutor give him such an enormously good deal? Was Jay only a marijuana dealer, or was he connected in some way to some important person? Were these kids who were smoking weed, in 1999, maybe getting a little high on heroin in a place where that is somewhat normal? Intelligent people, intelligent adults and teenagers use drugs. This is completely speculative of me. But I’m just sayin’, I wonder these things.

Philosophical justice means exposing some things. Something that always bothered me was that Hae’s body was by all accounts well hidden. On the last episode, Koenig reveals that there is reason to believe that there was a serial killer operating within the Baltimore area at that time targeting Asian women. This would take massive amounts of time, coordination, detail oriented effort, creativity, and man hours to uncover a serial killer. Former chief of the FBI’s Crime Unit John Douglas states that a “conservative estimate” puts the number of active serial killers operating in the United States between 35 and 50. The FBI also cites that strangulation is the most common form of murder for serial killers, with 42.5% of victims strangled. Hae was strangled.

It is possible that Adnan killed Hae. Strangulation is also a very personal way to kill someone, and random lethal domestic violent attacks do happen. But the Kafkaesque maze of analyzing who Adnan is, evaluating which part of what Jay says is the truth or a lie, the entire bizarre situation with the prosecutor and Jay’s lawyer, and this strange observation that according to Koenig, the body was really well hidden, and according to Jay, it doesn’t sound like they put a lot of physical effort into disposing Hae’s body makes me feel like this was a case where political justice won. But an experienced killer would know how to dispose a body so that it would be hard to find and know that Baltimore is a place where many people are murdered.

The only two people who know who killed Hae are Hae and her murderer. And what is so absolutely tragic is when murders get away with murder, like George Zimmerman. But what might be more tragic, is when a man’s life is taken away based upon a narrative about his identity and a story told by an identified liar.

That to me is reasonable doubt.