Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

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Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

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Sneerial: Season 2

nn_01_jmi_berghdahl_140602I deliberately didn’t post an instant response when Serial Season 2 started. Those who listened to Season 1 from the very beginning were obviously hanging on the release of the new season, and the temptation to react hotly, instantly, and disappointedly (Prometheus style) was strong. I wanted to give it a chance.

On its own terms, Season 2, about Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, was okay. It’s a high quality production from the same team and it’s not doing anything wrong, per se. But it doesn’t hold the fascination that the miscarriage of justice featured in Season 1 does. Bergdahl deserted his US Army military post in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban, and was held captive for five years, but his story didn’t chime with me. He’s certainly a bit of an odd character, but I don’t care about him, nor about the Americans’ misadventures in war.

While the Adnan Syed case was unknown to almost everyone outside Greater Baltimore, the Bowe Bergdahl case was more notorious – at least to some. To be honest, it was as new a story to me as the Season 1 story was, but I’m aware by now that it has been widely discussed in the media, and certain presidential candidates have weighed in with their opinions. I don’t know what other choices they had, but it seems odd to have gone for this.

So there’s that: the sense that Season 2 was raking over ground already ploughed by Big Media, which made it less gripping. Season 1 worked because it shone a spotlight onto a single murder case in a city that sees a couple of hundred homicides a year. In other words, there had been another 2800 homicide cases in that city alone since Syed was jailed. Picking his case out of thousands and making it such compelling listening was a great feat of journalistic detective work, and made you, the listener, feel part of something special. Bowe Bergdahl’s case doesn’t have the same obscure fascination.

Then there’s what happened as Serial started to broadcast. Just as it was building up a head of steam, with weekly episodes at least being listenable and the details of the case starting to get a grip, they decided to swap to a fortnightly release schedule. Obviously, they had their reasons, but any momentum that Season 2 had gained was lost. And we’re up to 9 episodes now (the 10th is out this week), which means it must be nearing the end, but I just don’t feel the same level of anticipation. In fact, I barely notice its releases among all the podcasts I consume.

One interesting side effect of the slightly subdued reaction to Serial 2 has been that the ancillary podcasts that came into being around the original are struggling for relevance. Some, like Crimewriters on Serial just spun off and started to do more of their own thing (such as talking about Making a Murderer instead). The Bowe Bergdahl case didn’t really fit with the Crimewriters On theme, and anything else they discussed was of less interest to me (I didn’t think much of Making a Murderer), so I’ve unsubscribed. Meanwhile, Undisclosed has clearly come into its own when it comes to the Syed case, and has put forward more new evidence in its run than Serial ever managed. With the recent PCR hearing in Baltimore, Undisclosed remained on top of its detail-oriented game, while the Serial updates from the first few days of the PCR seemed detached and superficial.

Meanwhile Season 2 seems to meander around, poking into Bergdahl’s case in sometimes interesting ways, without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere important. While they could have gone for the military and foreign policy jugular, it feels to me like they’ve back pedalled, taking care not to offend the military industrial complex and their supporters.

So it’s a shame, but in retrospect, Serial 1 was something of a black swan, impossible to reproduce, and should have been left in its own unique category. In the meantime, its parent podcast, This American Life has lost a lot of its mojo and really misses those standalone episodes that Sarah Koenig used to produce.

After this showing, I’d be really surprised if Serial spawned a third season. It’s a shame, because now it will be remembered for a failure, which is neither fair nor just. Still, if it means Sarah Koenig is let loose on a wider variety of stories, it will be a blessing.

The State vs. the State vs. Adnan Syed

fax_cover_disclaimerI have of course been following the Adnan Syed post-conviction relief hearing on the Twitter and via podcast updates. These hearings can only take place if the defence team has new evidence to present, which means their scope is very limited, and cannot, for example, continue arguments from the original trial, or include stuff like, hey, the internet thinks Jay was probably lying. It’s interesting to contrast the carefully impartial journalistic updates from the Serial team with the more partisan and personally involved updates from the Undisclosed podcast crew. Less professional, but with more of a stake in the outcome. And do I detect, in the studied way that Serial is ignoring all of the things that Undisclosed has uncovered, a certain chilling in the atmosphere between the two podcast organisations?

So this PCR hearing rests on two bits of ‘new evidence’. The first is an alibi witness who was not called in the original trial, being presented in support of the idea that Adnan’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel by not including her testimony. The second is a complete rebuttal of the original trial’s cellphone location evidence, which sounds like it might not be ‘new evidence’, except it includes part of an exhibit (a fax cover sheet) that was perhaps deliberately excluded by the prosecution the first time around. This is – possibly – what is known as a Brady violation, which is when the prosecution doesn’t disclose evidence under the rules. What the cover sheet discloses is that the cellphone company, AT&T, included a disclaimer saying that the data was only reliable for outgoing calls. Obviously, if this had been introduced into evidence at the original trial, the whole cell tower narrative would have been called into question.

The alibi witness undermines the original prosecution narrative of the case, which argued that Adnan murdered Hae at a certain point in the afternoon after school. Asia says she saw him in the library opposite the school during the 20 minutes or so that he couldn’t account for previously.

Serial, of course, started with that question: can you remember what were you doing at a particular place/time six weeks ago? The podcast framed this as Adnan’s key problem: because he couldn’t account for about 20 minutes of his time, because he didn’t remember, or he had nobody to corroborate his memory, he was screwed. (My personal theory about why Adnan had such trouble remembering that day is because it’s possible his whole day revolved around either smoking or obtaining weed.) So Asia’s testimony is important because she’s accounting for that time in the afternoon, when Adnan said he was in the Library. Though apparently, he himself didn’t recollect speaking to Asia. (Why not? Weed? You see how it goes.)

So it really was a big fucking oversight that Gutierrez didn’t contact Asia.

But here’s the thing. If Asia’s testimony gives Adnan an alibi for the prosecution’s timeline of the murder, the cell tower evidence completely destroys the prosecution’s timeline, which they painstakingly constructed around their understanding of (selected highlights from) the cell tower data.

If the cell tower evidence is invalid, the timeline is invalid and Asia’s alibi isn’t relevant to it. So it’s not so much the alibi that matters as it is that the original defence counsel didn’t follow it up.

All of which means, in my mind, mistrial, and should certainly lead to a new trial.

But I called this post ‘The State vs. the State’ because, as we all know too well, the State hates to be wrong. The judge sits between Defence and Prosecution but is also a representative of the State, connected to all the other judges who have passed sentence and turned down appeals etc. over the year. The reluctance of a judge to overturn a verdict rendered by colleagues is inherent in the structure. So while the judge might not be personally biased against Adnan, they are going to be biased in favour of the System – because to admit that the System isn’t perfect is to dismantle the State.

In a larger sense, too, the defence is part of the State, because the (perfect) system cannot function perfectly when accused persons don’t have access to a defence. This system, by all accounts, is under extreme pressure both here and in the US, where public defenders, for example, get an average of a few minutes with their clients. As portrayed in a recent episode of the always-zeitgeisty The Good Wife, this means that detained people with no financial support get very little chance of a fair hearing.

This situation isn’t helped by people who sneer at the idea of defence lawyers trying to defend guilty people. The tenor of many of the Adnan Syed trolls on Twitter is that ‘he did it’ and therefore all these liberal campaigners are in the wrong. But the thing is, nobody can be that sure of anything in this case, other than the person or persons who actually murdered Hae Min Lee. If that’s Adnan, so be it, but I don’t know, and nor do any of the internet people who make such strong assertions. The kind of people who get angry when a person is released ‘on a technicality’ are similar to the people who try to justify torture. The State has to be held to account, has to prove the case, and cannot be allowed to conduct themselves dishonestly – even in the name of justice for victims.

The problem with the evidence in the original trial was that it was, on the one hand, constructed and presented by the prosecution in a way guaranteed to mislead the jury in certain ways. They didn’t point out that Jay was getting away with his supposed accessory role. No mention of the Crime-stoppers witness who received an oddly specific amount of money, for example. No mention of how the State’s star witness managed to change his story so many times to precisely match the eventual narrative of the cell tower pings.

The standard of evidence is supposed to be, as any fule kno, beyond reasonable doubt, but though the jury in the original trial were (reportedly) leaning towards not guilty, that at the second trial got an entirely different impression (perhaps because the star witness was more convincing second time around). Now, taking into account the Asia testimony, the doubt now clouding the cell tower data, without even mentioning the possible police and prosecution misconduct, I think we’ve got nothing but reasonable doubt here. Case not proven. No matter what you suspect, no matter your prejudices or theories, there isn’t enough evidence for the conviction to stand.

As to that misconduct, I think that Undisclosed have done a sterling job of uncovering Brady violations, blatant witness coaching (tap tap tap), junk science and a complete lack of effort in pursuing any other suspects, as well as a history (in Baltimore) of similar misconduct in other cases. Whereas Serial finished on a note of open-ended (but reasonable) doubt, I feel that if you followed the case through the incredible detail work of Undisclosed, you’d now be assured that (at the very least) a new trial is what this case needs. It’s a shame, I think, that the family of Hae have to go through this, but their anger should be directed at the police and prosecutors who did such a shitty job all those years ago.

On the charming Mystery Show podcast

Mystery-LogoI spotted Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show podcast cropping up in the recommendations section of Overcast, and immediately downloaded episode one to give it a try. I was instantly charmed, and although I’m a jaded podcast listener who was into Serial long before you were, I promptly downloaded the rest of the half dozen episodes that have been broadcast so far.

I  think Mystery Show definitely owes something to Serial, in that it’s a species of investigative journalism with a brilliant female presenter and clever editing. But whereas Serial tackled the life-and-death case of a possible, probable miscarriage of justice, Mystery Show tackles puzzles on a much smaller scale. The one rule is, these mysteries can’t be the kind of things you can solve with a Google search.

And therein lies its charm. Episode one features a woman who swears she once joined a video rental store, borrowed a video, and then, the very next day, when she went to return the film, the store was gone. Episode 2 tackles the mystery of a book Britney Spears was photographed carrying (apparently she is frequently photographed clutching reading material). Episode 3 is about a fancy belt buckle that some guy found in the street. That’s my favourite so far (made me cry). Also: the how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal episode is laugh-out-loud funny.

Presenter Starlee Kine is brilliant: very witty, with a savant-like gift for getting people to open up to her. The subject matter is light enough to be endlessly amusing, and the mysteries are trivial, everyday, and yet somehow deeply fascinating. It’s not studio bound, but somehow manages to get out and about, into the country, and Kine seems to encounter interesting people everywhere she goes. Every interview gives a little boost to your faith in humanity. It’s heady stuff: this podcast spreads happiness

I’ve culled a few podcasts from my list lately (my commute being so much shorter now), but this one makes the grade. It’s refreshingly different, too, coming from a different stable (not Radiotopia, not Incomparable, not 5by5 etc.). Starlee Kine is already a podcasting star, and I particularly thank her for introducing me to the guy who runs an artisanal pencil sharpening business.

Undisclosed episode 2

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 08.27.05First things first: I thought the audio quality of the second episode of Undisclosed was much improved, and I didn’t notice any of the presenters talking too fast this time, so thumbs up to that.

As the first was about Adnan’s day, this episode was about Hae’s day, and called into question many, many of the things we’d been assuming were true. If it’s about anything so far, Undisclosed is about the unreliability of memory and the ways in which witnesses can’t really be trusted to have remembered the facts.

None of this is terribly surprising, but when the legal system (and this case in particular) is so determined to keep relying on sworn witness statements, it’s good to be reminded of it. In fact, Serial itself might well have spent more time on this – made it more of a theme – because the very first episode began with the notion that Adnan Syed is in prison because he couldn’t remember what he was doing in one twenty minute period six weeks before he was asked about it.

The first episode of Serial began with that question: could you remember what you were doing six weeks ago, if asked? Obviously, it depends on whether you were doing something particularly memorable; or whether your life is pretty regular and has routines.

Say, for example, you remember the day vividly because you happened to be co-coaching the school wrestling team, and you wanted the more experienced coach to be at the match with you, but they didn’t turn up? You’d remember that, especially if it made you anxious, vividly. This was one of the key points in the original trials, and in Serial itself. Why did nobody check, then, whether there really had been a wrestling match on January 13? Turns out, there wasn’t. The match that Hae didn’t turn up to was the week before, on January 5th. That’s your ineffective assistance of counsel, right there.

What does this mean? It means that our ideas about the time-line of Hae’s last day are wrong. It means that a witness was mistaken. It means that there was a pattern to Hae’s behaviour, that this previously reliable and responsible girl suddenly let a friend/colleague down. Why? Maybe because of her intense involvement with her new boyfriend?

One thing that does interest me was that there was apparently a teacher who was the liaison between staff, students, and police. This teacher was close to Hae and was apparently planning a trip to France with her. This, I want to know more about. Was it a school trip? With a group of students who would by then have graduated? Or was it a private holiday? A teacher with a student? I think we need to know.

The famous local news clip, showing Hae posing for indoor hockey footage and being interviewed, was also supposed to have taken place on the 13th. Only nobody mentioned it, talked about it, or remembered it. Turns out, that was almost certainly the week before, too.

We still don’t know what happened. But we do apparently know that a lot of what we thought we knew is wrong. Which throw loads more reasonable doubt into the case, but doesn’t provide Adnan with anything convincingly exculpatory.

How about this Undisclosed podcast, then?

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 16.12.11Undisclosed: the State vs. Adnan Syed is a new (fortnightly?) podcast from a group of lawyers who have been blogging about the case since it was made a public obsession by the Serial podcast. Both parties are at pains to point out that this new thing has no connection with the old thing, except you have to have listened to the old thing in order to understand this new thing.

I hope that’s clear. I had read two of these lawyer-bloggers (Susan Simpson, who writes View from LL2, and Rabia Chaudry, who writes Split the Moon), but was not aware of the third (Colin Miller, who writes Evidence Prof), so I knew that they had much, much more to say about the case, in greater detail, than the Serial podcast had time for. Some of the detail, you should be warned, can get pretty gruesome. If you’re squeamish about CSI and stuff like that, do not read Evidence Prof., for example.

So who is this for? You have to be really interested in this case. I know a lot of people ran out of steam with Serial, and lots of people were a bit bummed that it didn’t really have a conclusion. If you are one of those people, I don’t think Undisclosed is for you. Because this is going back over old ground in granular detail, exposing flaws and contradictions in the case and the evidence. Some of this points to Adnan’s innocence, some of it might not. Some of it just muddies the waters. What it does definitely achieve is the complete undermining of the prosecution case, which (as Serial listeners already know) was a narrative constructed to point to Adnan’s guilt, and which deliberately ignored or tweaked facts to fit.

The first episode goes right back to Serial’s first episode, and considers Adnan’s schedule on the day Hae Min Lee disappeared. It interrogates the witness statements assembled by the police (playing samples from the original recordings) and exposes their inconsistencies. For example, the business about track practice and what day it was, and when it started and what time Adnan arrived, what he was doing between the end of school and the start of practice, and how he participated when he got there. Or the differences between what one witness said at the first trial, and what she said at the second trial. Or the famous phone call that Adnan received at another witness’ house, his supposedly paranoid reaction, and when exactly this event took place (spoiler: possibly not on the day of Hae’s disappearance at all).

These people have examined the call logs not just of the day of Hae’s disappearance, but of other days, too. They expose some statements as being completely mistaken or misremembered. Unsurprisingly, they remind us just how much and how often Jay changed his story to fit the police case, whereas what Adnan said in 1999 and what he said in 2010 remains pretty consistent. Calls that were supposed to have been from Hae’s brother turn out probably not to have been, and so on.

It’s fascinating – but only if you have an affinity for these kind of granular details.

But this is not Serial. Most especially, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same quality audio. The sound is uneven – and I’m not just talking about the old recordings of witness statements. I think one of the three talks way too fast. The presentation, in short, is nowhere near as slick as Serial’s, and none of these lawyers would claim otherwise. So if what you enjoyed about Serial the most was the NPR-style richly layered soundscape, steer clear.

I’m personally always ready to learn more about this case in particular, and I’m definitely interested in understanding how prosecution and defence cases get constructed and how juries can be bamboozled by misleading evidence. So I enjoyed it and have subscribed.

Recommended for die hards.

I come to praise Serial, not to bury it

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 06.50.17Anticipating the usual clickbait backlash out there on the interwebs, I just want to leave this here now that Serial has reached its 12th and final episode.

If you are one of the 7 billion or so other people who haven’t been obsessing on Serial and don’t feel inclined to binge on all 12 episodes but maybe would like a taste of what all the fuss is about, try this. Obviously, you could just listen to episode 1. I would defy you then not to be hooked, but if you’re really short of time, then I suggest a different thing altogether.

One of the all-time great episodes of This American Life is “Dr Gilmer and Mr Hyde” (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/492/dr-gilmer-and-mr-hyde), about a small town doctor who investigates a patricide committed by his same-named predecessor. It’s compelling, gripping, surprising, and brilliantly narrated by none other than Sarah Koenig, the journalistic force behind Serial. Listen to that, which fits into an hour, and then you’ll know something of what Serial is like. “Dr Gilmer and Mr Hyde” had me frozen, mid-step, in the kitchen, holding my breath.

So to the last Serial episode, which was very well done. It was scrappy, but always interesting throwing in different voices and some new information that might take regular listeners time to process. The main thrust of the episode was to include all the possibilities, all the voices, and to acknowledge that those who still affirm that Adnan did it have more on their side of the line than just an opinion. He did have to have been extremely unlucky for those circumstances to stack up against him. I still find it puzzling that someone would get a new mobile phone and immediately leave it with a friend, along with his car. He denies it, but a couple of people have said that he did ask Hae for a lift that day – although he argues that he wouldn’t have because he knew she was supposed to pick up her cousin every day.

You could ruminate for hours on all the things that point towards Adnan as the culprit, but then here comes Don.

Don was the new boyfriend. They’d officially been an item for less than 2 weeks, and yet, according to Don, she spent the night with him on the 12th January, the day before she was killed.

To me, this is the big piece of information that nobody seemed to know before. This girl, who had been keeping her previous boyfriend secret from her parents, this 18 year old school girl, is spending the night with her new, older boyfriend? And she has written a note that was found in her car, which read, in part: sorry I couldn’t stay. Don says now that she wanted to stay and take the day off school but he had to work and told her she ought to go to school. So was the sorry in the note sorry because he wouldn’t let her bunk off school? Or is Don’s version departing from the truth?

And how would Hae’s family and friends react if they learned that she’d just spent the night with Don? It opens the possibility that Adnan, who presumably never got to spend the night with her in that way, might well have lost his shit. Or maybe somebody else did.

“Big Picture”

Another strand of this final episode was an update from The Innocence Project, who have identified a potential serial killer who was released from prison at about the time that Hae and Don started officially dating. Ronald Lee Moore also seems to have targeted at least one other young Korean-American woman. So there’s a petition to get the DNA evidence in the case tested (finally). The problem with this third party option being that Jay appears to have known too much about Hae’s burial not to have been in some way involved. As people keep pointing out, Jay knew where the car was. Sarah Koenig expresses this thought, and is told, “Big picture, Sarah.”

This could be interpreted as, don’t focus on small details at this stage. Or it could be interpreted as, shut up, this is the only way to get the DNA into evidence, and who knows what we might find?

The show drops in that Hae was interviewed by a local TV crew on the day she died. Amazingly, this short interview, and film of Hae with her lacrosse stick in the school gym, is available on YouTube.

As for the Jay knew where her car was line, well. Maybe he did. Maybe he was involved, with Adnan or the third party. Or maybe he spotted the car some time in the weeks between her disappearance and the discovery of her body. Or maybe there’s another reason he knew.

Finally, Sarah Koenig concludes that there was never enough damning evidence to convict Adnan Syed, and I agree. She also confesses to still having some doubts, though she believes most of the time that Adnan is innocent. Nobody, says Adnan, except the real killer and himself can know for sure that he is innocent.

What was going on that day with Jay and Adnan? I’d speculate that they were on a mission to get weed. I think weed was on their minds all day long. And if Adnan did leave his car and phone with Jay, it was because Jay had need of them to get weed. So a mission for weed, maybe, turned into a murder. Or a mission for weed, maybe, turned into some involvement with a third party who turned to murder. Or a mission for weed, maybe turned into paranoia and a cooked up story that laid the blame at Adnan’s door. Jay may have known where the car was, and what Hae was wearing when she was buried because he was coached in those details. We’ll never know, unless one of the cops confesses on his death bed, or Jay comes forward and admits that he lied.

Anyway, I was hooked from the start and bereft now it has finished.

Serial Box

Adnan_Syed_1998I don’t want to labour a point I already made on Twitter, but I started listening to Serial before you did (just deal with it). I heard the first episode when it was on This American Life, and it was not the first episode of that long-running show that had me gripped from beginning to end. I remember standing in the kitchen, in the middle of cooking, paused in mid-move so as not to make a sound, lest I drown out the distorted telephone voice.

My first exposure to podcasts was via The Word magazine, and I occasionally enjoyed listening to several middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about music obsessively. I am a middle-aged bloke myself, an accident of birth, so I was very much the target demographic. Never in a million years did I think that one day I would abandon live radio altogether in favour of a subscription list of (at last count) 45 podcasts.

mb9jGYeI listen to a lot of tech, and a lot of ‘true stories’ podcasts, but also things like Philosophy Bites, Life of the Law, 99% Invisible, and so on. I am still loyal to the Radio 4 podcasts I have always listened to, but they’re not longer at the top of my things to love.

Serial has generated a lot of column inches over the past couple of weeks as slow-moving old media finally caught up with it. It was even on Radio 4’s Media Show. Yes, I am sneering at them. Has Serial’s adoption by mainstream media spoiled the pleasure a little bit? I think it has. It’s a bit like when you love a band and expend a lot of time trying to tell people about them, only to have your dreams come true, and, oh, now everyone is talking about them and you don’t feel special any more. I know I’ll feel a wrench if I ever see a Larkin Poe feature in the Graun.

As someone with impaired hearing (I can’t hear the full frequency range), I struggle sometimes to hear what people are saying on Serial. The first podcasts I listened to were just people (blokes, usually) sitting around a microphone, but the more sophisticated podcasts are proper radio soundscapes with music, sound effects, and clever editing of contributors. I think they’re brilliant, but background music and layered voices can be hard. Some of the recordings are of sub-optimal quality. In the case of Serial you are of course dealing with 15-year-old courtroom testimony, police interview tapes, and all those phone calls with Adnan Syed. Some of it is hard to make out, but it is all compelling, and it underscores the sense that this podcast is a serious piece of investigative journalism, with an evidence base. Hunting around online, you can find scans and photos of documents, letters, maps, tables, and so on.

What makes Serial different from other examples of investigative journalism? After all, the idea of a journalist using some media platform to expose a miscarriage of justice is not new. But when TV or radio has done it in the past, they usually condense the years-long research and legwork into an easy-to-digest hour or 45 minutes for broadcast. But the thing with a podcast, and the thing I started to get as soon as I started listening to The Word, is that your audience can be so niche that there can be no such thing as too much information. It was listening to middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about The Beatles that gave me this insight. How much is too much to an obsessive? No such thing.

So Serial is investigative journalism and narrative for obsessives. Once the first episode has you hooked, you just want more and more, never ending. And while mainstream media has occasionally made noises about how disappointing and Lost-like it will be if there’s no real conclusion, I don’t think that really matters. The thing about serial narratives is that you have to find ways to keep it going.

In reality, you don’t have to dig very deep to find potential spoilers. As we keep being reminded, this is a real case with real people, and you don’t get 5 million downloads without somebody paying attention.

You’ll be wanting to know what I think (Chorus: Nobody cares what you think!)

From the very first episode, I knew that there had not been a convincing case made, that there was reasonable doubt. By the time you heard recordings of two of the jurors, you realised that, somehow or other, they’d been bamboozled and confused into convicting in a ridiculously short time. One of them said that she believed Jay because “he was going to jail anyway, so why would he lie?” When in fact the whole point was that Jay’s sweet deal meant he wasn’t going to jail. That, there, should be enough to invalidate the verdict: the jury were not in possession of all the facts. Not because they hadn’t been told, but maybe because they were a bit thick. Then there was the juror who judged Adnan guilty for not defending himself after being specifically instructed not to take that into account. As for all those who claim that you can’t help making such a judgement and putting this down to legal niceties, I disagree. If you think about it at all, if Adnan was innocent (which he has already said by entering a plea), it was up to the State to prove him guilty. So, no, you don’t judge somebody for not trying to ‘prove’ their innocence. The point is that there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence. That recording of that juror showed that for at least one of the jury – and probably more than one – there was no presumption of innocence. Again, I have to ask myself if they were a bit thick.

As we all know, the case always rested on shaky ground, viz:

  • Cell tower evidence, which doesn’t show what the police claimed that it showed in 1999.
  • Testimony from Jay, who was clearly coached to the eyeballs by the prosecution and police who did a deal with him to keep him out of jail.
  • A supposed time-line of the murder and a time of death that makes no sense.
  • A phone call supposedly from a payphone that clearly didn’t exist at a time when some witnesses claim that Hae was still alive.
  • Witnesses and evidence that was not followed up by either the police or the defence team.
  • An discredited (and irritating) defending lawyer whose style of questioning must have been so fucking hard to listen to for five weeks, was it not? Was it not? Was it not?

Mostly, however, I think the case rests on prejudice against Adnan because he was an American boy with a Pakistani background. A lot of the police narrative of the case rests on the (implied) idea that this was some kind of ‘honour’ killing, by a stereotypically angry Muslim. All of the stories about him being dragged out of dances, about the secrecy surrounding his relationship with Hae – all of that implies that this was somehow unusual. As his cousin has pointed out on her blog, this is actually just typical for just about any Asian-American teenager.

I’m not Asian, of course, but this also rang true to me. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a girl whose over-protective father would not let her go out with boys. I used to park and wait at the end of her road. She would leave home to ‘go round a (girl) friend’s house’, and jump in my car. We would go out, and I would drop her at the end of the road and watch her walk home. We did this for several months, before she finally plucked up the courage to tell her old man. Who used to let his yappy little dog loose whenever I came to the door after that.

So I’m fairly clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice, that there was tons of reasonable doubt. But I’m also more sold on podcasts than ever before. And the best app, for my (actual) money is Overcast.