Sunday, January 4, 2015

Serial Lack of Evidence

So….this week I listened to Serial. Yeah, yeah, I jumped on that bandwagon and I listened to all 12 episodes in just a few days time. (For those that don’t know, Serial is a podcast featuring Sarah Koenig that was a 12 part continuance of an investigation into the 1999 of high school student Hae Min Lee).

In my defense, the story is absolutely riveting. It must be with millions of people listening to the podcast before it was all said and done. It doesn’t even take an understanding or interest in the criminal justice system to get hooked. Sarah Koenig is captivating with her genuineness, and her storytelling really draws people in. She’s likeable, and she presents a likeable underdog with accused murderer and sort of antihero Adnan Syed. Her doubts echo our doubts as we listen. We ride this emotional rollercoaster with her and can’t help being completely timetraveling to 1999 in our minds every time we listen. There was nothing to see, no screen to be absorbed in… Koenig did it all with her voice and with the story itself.

It was so addictive, in fact, that there’s an entire subreddit thread dedicated to people attempting to solve the thing since the conclusion of the series honestly left its audience with more doubts than ever before and with certainly more questions than answers. I don’t want to do that here, though. There are plenty of theories and plot twists and an infinite number of possibilities. Truly infinite. The answer isn’t clear cut. The case isn’t closed, and I don’t think it ever will be without a confession from someone or solid forensic evidence of which, so far, there is none.

That’s my entire fucking point, though, and what had me screaming obscenities into the air causing even my cats to look at me like I’d lost it as I paced my floor often with broom in hand since I listened while doing housework and everything in between. My frustration was intense. The questions I had multiplied with every episode and still haven’t been resolved even after I’ve taken to the grand Internet to research more into the story, to learn as much as possible. I had doubts. Reasonable doubts. Multiple, solid, reasonable, rational doubts about Adnan Syed’s guilt. I cannot say with any certainty that he is guilty.

In a court of law, in a criminal court case, a prosecutor is required to prove that the defendant has done what he or she is accused of doing BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. If there is reason to doubt, if there are multiple doubts and unanswered questions, no conviction should happen. We’re only supposed to be sending those people who are proven to be criminals to prison especially as harsh as the prison environment can be. That’s not happening in this country, though, and this case is a perfect example of how badly we get it wrong. With death row offenders alone, the low estimate is that 4.1% are wrongly convicted. Estimates on the entire prison population range between 2.3 and 5% however that number can never be known with any certainty. If 5% is correct, that’s more than 100,000 who have been wrongly convicted and are currently sitting in prison. That’s not even getting into the number of low level drug crimes that shouldn’t be punished by prison at all (which is an entirely different blog for another day).

All that is to say that even on a good day, our court system often gets it wrong. Yet, here we are with a case where so many of the people involved actually believed that since Adnan was sentenced and has been in prison so long, the cops and courts must have gotten it right.

We have to stop that belief. The court coming to a conclusion isn’t indicative of anything on its own.

I mean, here we are with a case where the only real evidence against this man is one witness. One witness who was given favorable treatment by police and the courts to be a witness in the first place. One witness who was threatened by the police to make him want to talk. One witness who wasn’t exactly an upstanding citizen himself who constantly changed his story who was likely coached by detectives (one of whom is now involved in a lawsuit where he has been said to have done just that). We have a case where there is no physical evidence, no real motive, and a good deal of racist attitudes against the defendant. We have a case where the evidence used, cell tower evidence, is unreliable, and actually did little to prove the timeline that was given by the star witness. Even if you don’t take into account so much else presented in Serial namely the witnesses who were never interviewed, the potential for a 3rd party, and the questions surrounding the defense attorney, you’re still left with a case where it’s one person’s word against another with both people being known liars.

Where is the fucking certainty?

So many people seem to think that DNA or some time of physical evidence is being used in cases and that’s what puts away the “bad” guys but the reality is that DNA is used in 5-10% of cases. That’s all. Witness testimony, which is highly fallible, accounts for far more until we’re left with cases like Adnan’s where a case is rushed, cops coach their witnesses, and a jury is completely unable to look at the lack of facts with any sort of objectivity. The jurors themselves admitted that Adnan not testifying completely colored their opinions on the case even after being instructed that it shouldn’t affect their decision one way or another…

But, he’s in prison for life.


At 17/18 years old, he was sentenced to life in prison without real evidence proving he deserved to be there. If he did what he was accused of, then he belongs in prison, but this case like so many others before it and so many more that are happening now or will happen in the future shows that we don’t really prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt when it comes to putting someone behind bars. At best, the jury figures the person was fingered by the police for a reason and just goes along with it. As long as we keep sitting idly by, hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be behind bars and our growing prison population will keep the prison-industrial complex lining the pockets of the rich…

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