What the Serial Podcast Says About Our Justice System

I have to admit, I was very committed to the podcast Serial, which documents the cases both for and against Adnan Syed, who was convicted in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. At first, I was fascinated because I’m from Baltimore, and actually spent a large amount of my time in most of the areas discussed in the podcast – for example, I spent a lot of time shopping at the Best Buy that appears throughout, and I know for a fact that, in 1999, there was no payphone outside. I know this, because once, I had to call a friend to ask him a question, and I had to use a payphone outside the McDonald’s that is adjacent and up a steep hill from the Best Buy, because they had none.

But as I got into the series, I was involved in it for an entirely different reason. This case demonstrates just how completely broken our system of justice is. It shows how “innocent until proven guilty” has become a quaint, archaic concept, when it most certainly should not be. How can we convict anyone of first-degree murder based on circumstantial evidence? How is it possible to put someone in prison for the rest of his life because his lawyer didn’t prove he “did not” commit the crime? That’s not how our criminal justice system is supposed to work. We are never required to prove we didn’t commit a crime; the government has to prove we did. We no longer seem to accept that standard, and the result will be the demise of a fair and equitable system of justice.

Our justice system has turned into something of an exercise of theater of the mind. The attorneys representing both sides are looking to “win.” Law enforcement is less interested in finding the truth than clearing the case. They develop a theory about what happened and they look for evidence to prove that theory.

In the Syed case, for example, they had loads of forensic evidence testing to do, and did none of it. They focused on him, as the ex-boyfriend, and pinned it on him because of alleged jealousy, without considering the possibility that someone else may have done it. Because of this approach, they fashioned a ludicrous case based on cell phone records and testimony by a strange figure who changed his story constantly, but who said things police and prosecutors wanted to hear. I don’t know that he didn’t do it, but based on all of the available evidence, there is also no way anyone could say he committed the crime, either. As a justice analyst said on the podcast, there is literally a “mountain of reasonable doubt.” How is it possible to have “mountain of reasonable doubt” in a case and still convict someone?

It’s due to a number of factors, all of which constitute major problems with regard to what our justice system is supposed to be. I blame most of this on the judges in these cases, who don’t instruct jurors properly as to their responsibility under our system of justice. First, there is a tendency on the part of most people to believe whatever police say, and value it as “fact.” We see that every day on social media, and those of us who push back against it tend to be tarred and feathered as a result. Police create a narrative, and they tend only to discuss the evidence that supports that narrative; that doesn’t mean there isn’t other evidence available to counter that narrative. If jurors are not instructed to treat all evidence – regardless of its source – skeptically, there is no way to guarantee a fair trial. And when jurors believe everything police say, and require the defendant to prove their narrative is wrong, the “innocent until proven guilty” concept, which is the bedrock upon which our justice system is built, goes out the window.

Then, there’s the prosecution, which is charged with “winning” as many cases as possible. They will take the law enforcement narrative and only present evidence that supports that narrative, demanding that the defense come up with its own opposing narrative and evidence. These days, the defense is required to prove they did NOT commit the crime to the jury which, again,  stands the system on its head.

If all players in our system treat justice as something like a sporting contest, in which one only has to develop a believable story to “win,” we have a serious problem, and our system eventually will not work, even a little. If all that’s required by police and prosecutors is the development of a narrative similar to one the jury has seen on a “Law and Order” episode, what chance does anyone have to be acquitted, even if they really did not commit the crime? And let’s be clear; in a first-degree murder case, a lack of forensic evidence should make it more likely that the defendant is acquitted, not less.

There are other problems with our justice system, but this is huge.  It’s one thing when “the rabble” on social media “convicts” a guy of a crime based on just the word of police. But our justice system has to be above that silliness. When two grand juries in different states can declare that police officers should not face trial for shooting unarmed black men, we have a very serious problem, to be sure. But if someone can be convicted of a serious crime like murder based solely on the fact that the prosecution was able to develop a better narrative than the defense, we have two very serious problems, and we should all be worried. How long before government officials just start making shit up about their “enemies” and throwing them in jail as a result? It should be difficult as hell to convict anyone with minimal evidence, but apparently, it’s not.

Forget the entertainment value of the Serial podcast; take the time to listen to it and peruse the evidence, and consider what it tells us about our system of justice.

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