Is he guilty? And if not, who is? I ask this question. Everyone listening to Serial asks it. Some are obsessed with it. Even to the exclusion, I fear, of more crucial questions. But if Adnan’s guilt or innocence is driving your obsession with Serial, I can tell you now that you will not get the definitive verdict you desire. This is not just because Serial is, after all, a story; it’s because the police case is a story, the trial is a story. Serial has sparked discussion about the role of storytelling in journalism, yet far more interesting, Serial has revealed the role of storytelling in our justice system. From Jay’s testimony to the police investigation, evidence did not convict Adnan. A story did. Even what looks like evidence—cell phone “pings”—only become damning when spun into a story.
Something odd is happening here: With five million listening in their own personal jury box, Sarah Koenig sharing her testimony, and procedural rules written on the fly, a podcast has, however inadvertently, become a public courtroom. While the police investigation looks more like a writer’s room and the courtroom a stage for storytelling.
Evidence, the one factor we assume decides guilt and innocence, is simply missing from this case. There’s little chance Koenig will find it. The Innocence Project might. By episode 12? Well, we can dream. What Koenig will do and has already done—unless she’s withholding (unforgiveable at this point)—is dismantle the story Adnan was convicted on. She’s already revealed falsehoods and inconsistencies. Remove these and the narrative structure collapses. The only answer we can realistically expect from the public courtroom that is Serial is not who’s guilty, but was Adnan’s trial fair and just.
No doubt, despite the lack of definitive proof, we’ll all come to and tweet our own verdict. But if you still feel you just need to know whodunit, there are a few options available to you:
- Follow the Innocence Project investigation. In fact, when they took on the case in Episode 7, that’s the point at which Serial should have properly ended. I’m speaking, of course, purely theoretically. Had this happened, just like you, I would have been devastated.
- If there is no longer a guilty “story” and yet also no additional proof, one option is to just go along with the founding principal of the American justice system—innocent until proven guilty. That means accepting, at least in legal terms, that Adnan is innocent, wrongly convicted and mistakenly incarcerated for fifteen years.
- If none of this works and your curiosity simply cannot be quelled, think about Hae Min Lee and the people who love her. I hope to god they are not listening to Serial. I hope their news is being filtered so that they never read this or any commentary on Serial. Yes, this is so that they are spared our public appraisal and enjoyment of “events” that to them is, in fact, their life and utterly traumatic. But it is also so that they are spared from living with the gnawing possibility that Hae’s killer is free and that a person Hae cared about is suffering deeply and unjustly. So no matter how much we think we just need to know, we can remind ourselves that the ones who really need to know the truth are the ones who love Hae Min Lee.
So when the last episode airs and we are left with unknowns, instead of feeling cheated maybe we can appreciate what we’ve gained from this story and also what we’ve lost—perhaps the kneejerk assumption that every prisoner is a sociopath or that our justice system functions justly. We can go further. We can learn about the Marshall Project. Not just watch, but read Orange Is The New Black. Listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk. Read his book. When we all tweet our verdicts on Adnan, we can take a moment to search #cjreform. And you know, Agatha Christie wrote like 80 books. And, at any given time, Law & Order is bound to be playing on some cable channel. Better yet, I think you can now download the classic radio mystery The Shadow Knows. See, we’ll be fine. The rest of us will be fine.