“Serial” is the podcast of the year, an absorbing dive into a closed case, told in roughly 40-minute weekly installments. Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American teenager in Baltimore, was strangled to death in January 1999. Based almost exclusively on the testimony of a fellow high-school student named Jay, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the crime. Relitigating the case before the people’s court is host Sarah Koenig. Today, episode 11.
This discursive penultimate episode doesn’t offer much in terms of new facts about the case. We hear almost nothing about the victim, Hae, or other possible suspects. (A serial killer? Hae’s boyfriend at the time? Mr. S? Jay?) Instead, Sarah Koenig asks overarching questions about humanity. Could any of us “snap” and kill someone, or does a person have to be insane in some way — perhaps a psychopath — to be a murderer?
It seems that what drew Sarah Koenig to the case is not necessarily the specific mystery of who killed Hae Min Lee but a larger mystery about the human condition. What are we capable of? Could someone who everyone generally agrees is a good guy strangle his girlfriend with his bare hands and then hang out, smoking pot with his friends, while her corpse freezes in his trunk?
How do we trust our own judgment — as reporters, storytellers, or simply as human beings — when we can be so very wrong, even about the people we think we know best? Three points about this episode:
1. Adnan’s community is overwhelmingly supportive of him, but negative rumors continue to swirl about and around him — off the record, of course.
Some of the rumors that reach Koenig are silly and easily dismissed. One alarms her, to the degree that she believes that if she can substantiate it, she will have to accept that Adnan did indeed kill Hae. However, when she tracks down the person who supposedly first shared the incriminating information, the source is politely mystified. He has no idea what she is talking about.
Relatively few people from Adnan’s small, close-knit Muslim community are willing to speak on the record about Adnan. They tell Koenig that information and gossip travels swiftly, and no one wants to be the individual who goes against the grain. Since Adnan was arrested, his story has been seen as a neighborhood cautionary tale. (The bias evident in episode ten perhaps explains why.)
One person named Ali has only positive things to say: Adnan was kind to him during gym class; “he would always have my back … kind of watch out for me, kind of like an older brother.” Even so, Ali is masked by a fake name and a distorted voice.
Other people, fearful of going on the record, confide to Koenig that they believe he was capable of committing the crime. They call him duplicitous, smart, and charming. They also call him a thief.
2. When he was a tween, Adnan stole donation money from the mosque.
Two people saw him do it. One refuses to go on tape; another does, anonymously, with his voice distorted. “He stole every Friday. He was looked upon as a golden child; his father was religious … He was in charge of collecting the boxes, counting the money, and he was pocketing thousands of dollars every week.”
“You saw him actually take money?” Koenig asks.
“I absolutely saw him,” repeats the source. (Later this source adds that he still thinks Adnan is a “genuinely good” person.)
Koenig checks with the Islamic Society. Apparently petty theft from the collection plate happens from time to time. People take shoes, too. But if Adnan took money, it couldn’t have been much. If the mosque were even $100 short a week, they would have noticed.
Adnan corroborates this account, admitting that he did take small amounts of donation money as part of a small group of boys the summer before eighth grade. He stopped when he was caught red-handed by his mother. But, he asks, why is it relevant? Why is his character being turned inside out and not anyone else’s? Adnan doesn’t mention Jay; he doesn’t have to.
“You go from my savior to my executioner,” he tells Koenig, his voice raised in frustration. “You’re publicly shaming me for something I never denied, and what does it have to do with the case? You’re not doing it to other people. Why do I have to keep getting called out?”
“He seemed pissed and hurt, and I understood it,” says Koenig. Lots of people shoplift or take easy money that isn’t theirs. That doesn’t make them murderers; it doesn’t even necessarily make them criminals.
The president of the mosque agrees. He is unsurprised by these revelations, and forgiving. Regardless of whether Adnan pilfered from the mosque, he says, Adnan does not and did not have it in him to be a murderer.
3. Most psychopaths aren’t killers, and most killers aren’t psychopaths.
But can anyone tell if someone has a crime like this in him? Koenig wonders. We try, of course. We evaluate whether someone is violent. Adnan is not: He is described as a peacemaker, the sort of person who defuses arguments rather than escalates them. We look at whether they seem to have empathy. Adnan shows every sign of being able to identify and understand the emotions of others.
“This term psychopath gets thrown around so easily,” laments Koenig. “I don’t think Adnan is a psychopath.” Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist, lawyer, and professor at SUNY Buffalo’s law school who frequently serves as an expert witness in murder trials, says that Koenig’s assessment is probably right. And yet, that does not mean Adnan is innocent. Most psychopaths aren’t killers and most killers aren’t psychopaths, he tells her.
“Killers I’ve evaluated have been ordinary people,” he says. “For the most part, people kill not in a pre-meditated way. They’re not evil. … They kill because something happens that pushes them over the edge.” That can happen in stages, too, over time. Ordinary people can snap and commit murder; they can even go into a dissociative state, experiencing temporary amnesia around the crime, and only recover the memories years later.
The fact that Adnan still maintains his innocence so many years later might work to his advantage—and it might not. People who are wrongfully convinced maintain their innocence, even when it hurts them. On the other hand, simply because a person continues to say he or she didn’t do something doesn’t mean he or she is telling the truth.
The upshot of this rather abstract conversation with Ewing seems to be that Adnan probably is, as he has maintained all along, a regular guy. Nothing about his character proves his guilt or his innocence.
Adnan echoes the frustration many listeners probably feel at this point. “Either you think I did it, or you don’t,” he says. He cannot change people’s minds through sheer force of personality. He also knows that people don’t know what to make of him. “They come expecting a monster, and I’m not that. Then they come expecting a victim, and I’m not that either, and they don’t know what to do. I’m just a regular person.”
“I was able to find the peace of mind in prison that I had lost at trial,” he says. Until Koenig started investigating the case, at least. Even then, he hoped the focus would be on the evidence, not his character. He hoped that she would find facts, evidence, meaningful proof one way or the other.
As a listener, it is easy to sympathize with him, to want Koenig to stop talking to “experts” who may or may not have insights into a prisoner’s personality and give us an alternative narrative of the case. What, if anything, has the Innocence Project uncovered? What does Koenig, at this point, think really happened? What should, or will, happen next for Adnan?
Whatever else Koenig has up her sleeve, we will find out soon. “I just want it to be over,” Adnan says. It will be, Koenig promises us. Next week: the final episode of “Serial”!