2.2 million people are locked up in America. That’s 2.2 million people most of us don’t think about. But if you’re a Serial listener, you’re thinking about one prisoner: Adnan Syed. Each Thursday we not only hear more about Adnan’s case, we hear Adnan. And for the 1.5 million listening to his voice week after week, one prisoner has become a person.
But when a cardboard cutout is replaced with the real thing, it can be confusing. We may not think about prisoners, but we do know we’re not supposed to like them; certainly we’re not to trust them. They are different from us in some fundamental way—that’s why they’re in prison, right? So what happens when you discover that you do kind of like this prisoner, maybe even believe him, or at least concede that he doesn’t seem to be all that different from the rest of us?
For Serial host and journalist Sarah Koenig, it throws her off-balance. Her preconceptions clash with her actual experience and she struggles to reconcile the two. She’s told us as much, and we can hear the confusion in her voice. Like in episode five, when she says to Adnan, “You’re a really nice guy … What does that mean …?!” In response, Adnan bristles. I don’t need someone to think I’m innocent because I’m nice, he tells her, I need someone to think I’m innocent because the case against me is flimsy. Koenig concedes the point, and all of us listening in, enthralled and entertained, are, for one poignant moment, reminded what is on the line for Adnan.
In the next episodes, Koenig ostensibly turns her attention to the details of the case. But her confusion remains. In fact, it’s what drives her investigation, and it’s also what throws her off-track. Because in her mind “good guy” and “capacity to take a life” can’t co-exist, she sees only two roads: Is he innocent or am I a sucker? But her understanding of Adnan as “nice” only means one thing: Adnan is nice. It doesn’t mean you have to think he is nice. Nor does it mean Adnan is innocent.
I should share at this point that I believe Adnan is innocent. The evidence does not prove his guilt and I believe in the justice of “innocent until proven guilty.”
I should also share that I believe in rehabilitation. There are prisoners who are really nice guys—upstanding guys—enjoyable to talk to and, without question, guilty. I didn’t know this before I met actual prisoners, “lifers” even, but once I did, it became an unavoidable reality. Murder is an act, not a trait or as Koenig suggests “in the DNA,” and I believe that no person is completely and permanently defined by one act of any kind. As much as I believe this to be true, I also believe that for the loved ones of the victim this truth is suspended.
So Adnan is “nice” and this tells us nothing about his guilt or innocence. But it does tell us something important, something so obvious, but so overlooked. It tells us that Adnan is not, de facto, “scum” or de facto anything. Adnan is a person. All prisoners are. Yes, it’s an odd thing to have to say, but whether rightfully or wrongfully convicted, prisoners are human, and not some aberrant breed of human.
In Adnan, Koenig has discovered the individual otherwise hidden by the “Prisoner” tag. Yet, and presumably in the name of journalistic integrity, she then decides to turn him back into a cardboard cutout: Adnan might be a sociopath she wonders; and this theory becomes a serious line of inquiry.
Now, a different way to go about this would be to simply acknowledge that, yes, Adnan is a prisoner, Adnan is a nice guy, Adnan is a person. Then, if evidence suggests possible “scum-like” or sociopathic, psychopathic or other aberrant tendencies, by all means Koenig should follow that inquiry.
I admit, I don’t think this is just “another way.” If we have any interest in the truth, as well as ethics, it is the better way. It is how Koenig approaches Jay. Listeners ask why she doesn’t dig deeper into Jay, and it’s because she is affording him a respect that she should, ethically, and she must, legally. But Adnan . . . he’s fair game. And nobody (except Adnan) even notices. Prisoners are the bad ones, we’re the good ones, so we get to treat them badly. It sounds a bit perverted when you lay it out, but it’s pretty much how we operate.
Of course it’s more than disrespectful that Koenig legitimizes the sociopathic theory, it actually introduces bias—and in the name of objectivity, even. Keen and constant questioning is great journalism. Reification of gross generalizations, stereotypes and cultural mythologies—especially those based more on murder mysteries than real life—is not. But journalism forever struggles to tell the difference between these two.
It’s hard to even fault Koenig. She’s following accepted thinking and the standards set by her profession. She’s making the most of her skills and talents to get an important story heard. She needs to give full consideration to the possibility of Adnan’s guilt. I get that. I’m a proud skeptic myself, and I like Koenig’s sharp quizzical mind. But to pluck stuff out of the cultural ether and legitimize it in the name of impartiality is not at all impartial. It is ridiculous and it is dangerous, because we all know what’s in that ether. It’s what helped pull the trigger that killed Trayvon Martin and John Crawford III and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and so many more. It’s why black men are given longer sentences than white men for the same crime. Floating in that ether is a host of unsubstantiated, yet prevalent, beliefs and judgments. Just take your pick.
Actually, that’s a great idea. You’re already listening to Serial, so go ahead, dive into that ether and pick out those unconscious judgments about prisoners, current and former. Start paying attention to them. Ask about their validity. Do you believe them? Do you practice them even if you don’t believe them? Be open to all the information out there about the justice system and actual prisoners, or seek it out (see below). And don’t just stick to Adnan—when you let one person represent an entire group that’s a good indicator that you’re back in the realm of generalizations, stereotypes and mythologies.
I hate to say it, but while you’re at it, if you believe Jay did it, you know Jay’s African American, so are there any generalizations, stereotypes and mythologies swirling around him? Or will he become a reason to apply any of those to other African Americans? And what does it do to our perceptions that we know the ethnic and racial identities of Adnan, Jay and Hae, but not Stephanie or Jenn or Hae’s boyfriend or 10 to 20 other people that are part of this story? As we listen to Serial, there are so many significant questions we could be asking. Unfortunately, the one we ask the most, Whodunit, is perhaps the least significant of all.
Podcast: This is Criminal
Justice books and memoirs:
- Orange is the New Black by Piper Kernan
- Piper Kernan’s list of recommended memoirs and “justice books.”
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Criminal Justice online news source: The Marshall Project,