It Took a Pop-Culture Phenomenon to Right One Wrong

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A prerecorded Global Tel Link notice, Nick Thorburn’s plinking theme song, the drop in the beat — it’s almost Pavlovian how Serial’s opening sequence can take you back nearly eight years.

On Tuesday, the morning after Adnan Syed walked free following more than two decades behind bars, the Serial team, which first vaulted Syed’s story to international attention, released a brisk 17-minute update documenting the remarkable moment. “Adnan Syed got out of prison yesterday,” said host Sarah Koenig in the first seconds of the episode, her familiar narration sounding almost matter-of-fact. “It was extraordinary, the whole thing.” She walked listeners through the scene on Monday afternoon at the Baltimore City Circuit Court, where the press conference — publicizing that a judge had vacated Syed’s life sentence — was held. From the sounds captured in the field recording, filled with cheers and tears and raw emotion, the scene did, indeed, feel extraordinary.

The rest of the episode covered the series of events that led to this decision. For those broadly following the story (which is to say a lot of people), Tuesday’s update contained nothing particularly new or wild. The shock of this twist had already played out in the broader media ecosystem through the torrent of headlines that burst out last week, when news first broke that prosecutors had filed a motion asking a judge to overturn Syed’s 2000 conviction in the murder of Hae Min Lee, who had been his ex-girlfriend. Their request was based on new evidence uncovered in an investigation that began after Maryland adopted a law allowing individuals convicted of crimes as a juvenile to have their sentences modified after serving 20 years. (Syed was 18 when he was convicted.)

That development itself followed another well-documented tangle of twists and turns within the story: Syed’s conviction had previously been vacated by an appeals court in 2018, only for the state’s highest court to reverse that decision a year later. Many of these surprises had already been culturally processed and ingested through an expanded cluster of media that popped up to take over Syed’s story when the Serial team moved on, including, and perhaps most prominently, the Undisclosed podcast, co-hosted by Syed’s friend and longtime advocate Rabia Chaudry (who first brought the case to Koenig) and Amy Berg’s 2019 HBO docuseries, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Pending further unexpected turns, Tuesday’s brief update, then, functions as a kind of bookend within the context of the Serial podcast feed as a stand-alone historical document. Years from now, if someone were to revisit or discover Syed’s story, they would find a remarkable tale of a completely typical failure in the justice system that starts and ends in one place.

The actual story isn’t over, of course. To begin with, the judge has given prosecutors 30 days to decide whether or not to retry Syed, though, as Koenig noted, the chances of that happening are “remote.” Then there’s the matter of who is actually responsible for Lee’s killing. Prosecutors stopped short of declaring Syed innocent at this point in time — some DNA analysis is currently in play, and that will likely determine whether the case against Syed will be fully thrown out — but two “alternative suspects” were identified. The motion didn’t name them, but they were said to have motive and “propensity” for the crime. However things shake out, the story remains far from over for Lee’s family, some of whom continue to view Syed as the murderer. Justice for them will continue to be elusive, their pain deepened and prolonged. “This is not a podcast for me,” Lee’s brother told the judge over Zoom. “This is real life.”

There’s also been some chatter, online at least, around how best to view Serial’s relationship to this week’s developments. Old criticisms of that first season have flared up: what the team emphasizes versus what they didn’t, how those choices in framing and emphasis might or might not have shaped public opinion on the matter, how they largely glossed over Lee’s personhood, how the foregrounding of Koenig’s subjectivity suggested a bias toward believing in Syed’s innocence, how that subjectivity was perhaps not convinced of his innocence enough.

So the legacy of that first season will continue to be litigated and argued over, to some extent, for months and years to come. But the fact that the podcast will remain such a point of conversation within the context of Syed’s case is itself proof of its significance. Regardless of the particulars, Serial was the thing that turned a story of failure in the justice system into a wildly popular podcast that’s still being fought over eight years later.

The real shame is that it took a messy global phenomenon, one that is still unsurpassed in many ways, to rectify a perfectly typical breakdown in this country’s justice system.

It Took a Pop-Culture Phenomenon to Right One Wrong