“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 former 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 12, the finale.
“You don’t really have an ending?” asks Adnan.
“Do I have an ending?” echoes Sarah Koenig, thinking. She does not reply.
The other night, I made a bet with an editor at The Nation. If the final episode of Serial reveals a surprising twist, some real information, she buys me a Diet Coke. If it is merely a summation and recapitulation of everything we have heard so far with only philosophical digressions into the nature of truth, I owe her a Peach Snapple.
At the beginning of the episode, host Sarah Koenig promises “a smattering of new information,” though “I’m learning new information all the time.” Here are the most important revelations from the finale.
1. Hae didn’t want to go to school the day she was killed, and she left Don a note in her car.
Hae spent the night of January 12 at her boyfriend Don’s house. As you may recall, Don was older and worked at LensCrafters; the police considered him briefly and then dismissed him as a suspect, even though the manager at the store that provided his alibi was his own mother. Hae had wanted Don to pretend to be an authority figure and help her get an excused absence, but Don refused. Did Hae have a premonition, perhaps inspired by the calls Adnan made to her that evening?
Regardless, Don went to work and Hae went to school. When Hae’s car was found, there was a loving but confusing note in it from Hae to Don, saying she was sorry she couldn’t “stay.” (Stay for what? Neither Don nor Koenig is sure, and no one had ever shown Don the note before Koenig did.) “I promise to page you as soon as I get home,” wrote Hae, signing the note, “Always.”
Don underlines in the interview with Koenig that Hae was a bright, assertive, eminently likable person. He also makes clear that he does not necessarily think Adnan did it; he had no problem with Adnan when they met and refused to claim that he felt bullied or threatened by Adnan even when the prosecution pushed him to do so.
2. Jay was scared in the weeks after Hae’s death.
A man named Josh worked with Jay at the porn store, where Jay got a job at the end of January. Although they were not close friends, they hung out, smoking weed, and Josh says that, on occasion, “Jay was frightened out of his mind.” Jay believed that “people were after him, people connected to the murder … He was almost in tears.” At one point, “he really thought that the van that was across the street” was full of people waiting to get him.
Jay told Josh that he had helped bury Hae’s body and that Adnan knew people — including a Westside hit man — who might come after him to keep him silent unless the police came to get him first to keep him safe. Josh found all of this dubious. It is easy to side with Josh on this: After all, it has been 15 years and Jay is still alive, apparently unharmed. If Adnan or his people wanted retribution, they could have had it many times over.
3. Sarah Koenig still does not know what happened and even harbors some doubt — but as a juror, she would have voted to acquit.
In the second half of the episode, Sarah Koenig and her producers, who admit to still feeling suspicious, methodically go through the facts. They reiterate that “the call log evidence is screwy … There’s something they’re not telling us … I have no idea what was going on. There are discrepancies all afternoon and into the evening.”
Jay’s friend Jenn, with whom he spent much of January 13, also gives an account of their movements that contradicts the facts. For example, the record reflects an incoming land-line call to Jenn’s house at 3:21, where Jay and Jenn both say Jay was until at least 3:45. Jay claims he made that call, and Jenn remembers Jay having the phone. “Why would he be calling the house he’s sitting in?” Moreover, the tower pinged by the 3:21 call is not near Jenn’s house.
Someone is lying: Jay or Adnan, Jay and Adnan. Jenn. And this case is more confusing than The Big Sleep.
The Nisha call, which once seemed so damning to Adnan’s case, might simply have been a butt dial, since the producers discover that AT&T would almost certainly have billed Adnan for a call that lasted 2:22 even if no one picked up. It proves nothing. Asia’s alibi for Adnan, which she continues to stand by, does not prove much, either. He could still have asked Hae for a ride that afternoon and killed her.
The question, “What’s the utility of which lie?” applies to the entire case. All you can do at a certain point, Koenig says, is speculate, and “like crazy we speculate.”
Here is the upshot: There was not enough evidence to convict Adnan in 1999 and there is not enough evidence to convict him if he were tried today. There is virtually no evidence tying him to the crime at all. If she were a juror, Koenig says, she would vote to acquit. She would have to. She does, however, retain some small, stubborn doubts. Is it plausible that Adnan is innocent and merely had so much terrible luck?
“Big picture, Sarah, big picture,” says the more cheerful Deirdre Enright of the Innocence Project. Enright and her team are working on a lead that might use DNA found on and near Hae’s body to tie her death to a serial killer, Ronald Lee Moore, who was active — and out of jail — that January. Moore was a seasoned criminal who had strangled women before; Adnan was a 17-year-old who had never even been in trouble with the law. Who was more likely to have killed Hae?
Jay must have been involved somehow, though. He knew where Hae’s car was. He threw away his clothes and the shovel(s) he used to bury the body. He was scared in the weeks following the murder. Still, Koenig says, “that’s not a story — it’s a beginning, but it’s not a story.” You can hear her frustration: She is a storyteller, a journalist, and she doesn’t want a beginning. She wants an ending. Unfortunately, this case will not supply her with one. At least not yet.
Adnan tells Koenig, “I don’t think you should take a side … Leave it up to the audience to determine.” Adnan also tells Koenig that he wants Enright to test the DNA. “There’s nothing about my case that I’m afraid of.” Calling back to Koenig’s naïve assertion early on that she assumed all facts were friendly, he requests more facts — and that is perhaps the most heartening thing he could say.
When “Serial” began, it seemed like something out of Sherlock Holmes. After the police bungled the case, a desperate friend of the family called in an outside expert. It seemed as though Koenig might talk to a couple of new witnesses, tap her pipe a couple of times, and come up with a new understanding of the case, embarrassing the cops and freeing a wrongly imprisoned man. Instead, “Serial” turned out to be not a detective story but a noir, an increasingly complex and murky meditation on truth, memory, and our deeply flawed criminal justice system in which perhaps no one is innocent. And it seems that I owe my friend the Nation editor a Peach Snapple.