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How ‘Serial’ shined a light on our troubled justice system

June 8, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
It’s a true crime story that captivated a nation more than 15 years after it happened: Adnan Syed is serving a life sentence after being convicted of the 1999 killing of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore. William Brangham examines how the podcast “Serial” raised questions about Syed’s defense, and how the case continues to make news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a different look at law and order and the impact of a podcast that became a phenomenon, “Serial”‘s investigation of a murder case and a defendant who may have been wrongly convicted.

The podcast’s season wrapped up during the winter, but there’s still major interest and new developments in the case. An appeal is now forthcoming, one that could lead to a new trial, a plea deal, or perhaps a decision by the state to drop it entirely.

At the same time, larger conversations about the justice system are being stoked anew by this true crime investigation and others.

And back to William Brangham, who has been following the story.

SARAH KOENIG, Host: From “This American Life” and WBEZ Chicago, it’s “Serial,” one story told week by week. I’m Sarah Koenig.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s been downloaded over 60 million times, making “Serial” the most popular podcast in the world.

Throughout its 12 episodes, journalist Sarah Koenig and her team re-investigate a murder case from the late ’90s, a case that put a teenager in prison for life. But “Serial” rediscovered a key alibi witness that could help overturn that conviction.

Advocates for criminal justice says “Serial” has been a welcome reminder of the problems with our legal system.

BARRY SCHECK, Co-Director, Innocence Project: What’s been useful about “Serial” and often happens in cases where public attention is focused on a possible miscarriage of justice is that all kinds of people begin to look at the record and go, oh well, this should have been done, that should have been done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The story began in 1999 in a suburb outside Baltimore, when a 17-year-old girl named Hae Min Lee went missing.

This is video of her from a local news report back then.

HAE MIN LEE: I played field hockey for two years. I have played lacrosse two years.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Two years later, her body was found buried in a local park. She had been strangled to death. After a six-week investigation, Adnan Syed, her former boyfriend, was arrested and charged with the murder.

MAN: A 17-year-old Woodlawn student, his name is Adnan Masud Syed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Syed always said he was innocent, but he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Fifteen years later, Koenig and her team pored over the whole case, taking millions of listeners on a journey through the granular details of the police work, the specifics of the prosecution’s case and whether or not Syed had an effective defense.

Justin George is a crime reporter of The Baltimore Sun. He helped Koenig in several episodes of “Serial.” He took me to some of key locations in the case, explaining how “Serial” raised questions about Syed’s conviction.

We began in Leakin Park in Baltimore. This is Hae Min Lee’s body was discovered.

JUSTIN GEORGE, The Baltimore Sun: Hae’s body was found on the other side of this log. She was not completely buried. It was a shallow grave.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As Koenig reported, there was no DNA evidence at the scene linking Syed to the murder, no blood, no hairs, nothing. This Best Buy parking lot is where prosecutors say Hae Min Lee was murdered.

JUSTIN GEORGE: We’re at the Best Buy, which is very, very — like four minutes away from Woodlawn High School. This was where, again, the prosecution say that Adnan and Hae arrived after school and this is where he possibly killed her.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Koenig raised serious questions about the government’s key witness, a man name Jay Wilds, his timeline of what happened at this parking lot, as well as cell phone records prosecutors used to prove Adnan’s guilt.

But, more importantly, Koenig tracked down a woman named Asia McClain. She was a fellow student who says she saw Adnan Syed in this library at the same time the prosecution said he was out committing the murder.

JUSTIN GEORGE: This is where Asia McClain, the classmate of Adnan and Hae, said that she saw him here. And she wrote two letters after his arrest saying, “I know I saw you here. I can’t believe that you did this because I saw you during that day.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, if she provides this, what feels like a pretty strong alibi for Adnan, why is he in prison?

JUSTIN GEORGE: Well, his trial attorney didn’t call her and in fact didn’t even speak with her. That’s the basis of his appeal, that he had ineffective trial counsel, because why wouldn’t his lawyer have called on…


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It seems like a pretty basic thing.

In the first episode of “Serial,” Koenig read from these letters McClain wrote to Syed about seeing him the day of the murder.

Later, Koenig talks with McClain, who still didn’t seem to get how crucial her story could be in proving Syed’s innocence.

ASIA MCCLAIN: Even now, it would be nice if there was some technicality, something that would prove his innocence.

SARAH KOENIG: But I think, like, Asia, you might be that technicality. If you’re saying you saw him on this day at that time, that means the state’s timeline for their whole theory of the case doesn’t make any sense.

ASIA MCCLAIN: It’s a possibility.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Did Asia appreciate how central she might be to subsequent appeals?

JUSTIN GEORGE: I don’t think she did. I didn’t think she fully understand. And I think after “Serial” aired and she had the opportunity to listen to it all, I think she understood how important that she was in this.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK. Spoiler alert: For those who didn’t listen to the podcast, “Serial” never answered the question, did Syed kill Hae Min Lee or not?

But the legal case is not over. Six months ago, Asia McClain signed a new affidavit reaffirming that she saw Syed at the library, and this affidavit formed the basis for Syed’s last, best appeal, where he’s arguing that he got what’s called — quote — “ineffective counsel.”

And last month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that Asia McClain’s testimony needs to be heard in person.

“Serial”‘s unprecedented popularity has spawned a cottage industry surrounding Syed’s case. There are lengthy discussion groups on the Web site Reddit, conspiracy theories are floated, alternate suspects have been suggested, even full TV shows devoted to it.

SEEMA IYER, MSNBC: This is a very special edition of “The Docket” devoted to the case underlying the phenomenally popular “Serial” podcast.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s also turned Sarah Koenig into a rock star of sorts, packing in big crowds who want to hear even more about the case and the podcast, like this past Saturday at the Wolf Trap amphitheater in Northern Virginia.

Like “Serial” fanatics everywhere, people here have their own theories.

WOMAN: I felt they were sort of creating a case.

WOMAN: They’d broken up. She was moving on. He just seems the most likely suspect.

WOMAN: I think he’s guilty. I just keep going back to facts all the time. It has to be Adnan or Jay.

WOMAN: I think it was Jay.

MAN: I kind of lean towards he is innocent.

WOMAN: I just wonder how many other people in this situation don’t have the media interest that allow people to come forward and say, wow, like I was there and I was never interviewed.

BARRY SCHECK: Press campaigns around miscarriages of justice and calling public attention to it has a long and rich history.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Barry Scheck is the co-founder of The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. They have been assisting on Syed’s case.

Scheck says that “Serial” is just the latest in a long line of journalist reexaminations of criminal cases, like HBO’s recent documentary series “The Jinx” or the West Memphis Three, or Errol Morris’s famous 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line.”

In each case, the course of justice was changed in part by these investigations.

BARRY SCHECK: These cases, when they capture the public imagination, and lots of people get involved and start reinvestigating them, often come to good outcomes just because attention is paid.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There are only a few Errol Morrises and Sarah Koenigs out there. But there have got to be thousands and thousands of people behind bars today who want that Sarah Koenig treatment. What does that tell you about the justice system?

BARRY SCHECK: Well, it tells us that the justice system is riddled with errors. That’s what we learned from the innocence movement that we date toll 1989, because that was the beginning of DNA testing in the American criminal justice system.

What it did is exposed all the problems with eyewitness identification, false confessions, invalid or even fraudulent forensic science, ineffective assistance of counsel, police or prosecutorial misconduct, and the intractable problem of race. And, frankly, you have to look at all those things together operating at the same time against a particular defendant.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Oral arguments for Adnan Syed’s appeal are supposed to begin soon. And a second season of “Serial,” one detailing a completely different story, will begin this fall.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have been following the process online, where you can also watch a video tour featuring key locations in the murder investigation.