I’m now four episodes into Serial, the hugely popular reality podcast from WBEZ and This American Life. In it reporter Sarah Koenig episodically tugs together many loose ends around the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore teenager, in 1999. The perp, said the cops and the proscecutor at the time, was former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted by a jury of first degree murder. They deliberated about as long as it takes for an afternoon nap. He’s been in prison ever since.
My provisional conclusion is that the court was right to find Adnan guilty. My case for that conviction (or vice versa) is an ad hominem one: the whole thing is eerily eminiscent (for me) of Edgar Smith, (that’s his mug photo on the right) who served a record length of time on death row before successfully arguing for a retrial, which resulted in a lesser conviction and his release — after which he kidnapped and tried to kill someone else, confessing as well to the original crime. He’s an old man now, serving time for the second crime.
While still in jail for the first crime, Smith earned a high degree of media attention and celebrity with his book Brief Against Death, which was a bestseller at the time. I read it and believed him. So did William F. Buckley Jr., who befriended Smith, and was instrumental in getting Smith’s case reconsidered, by both the courts and the public. Buckley even wrote the introduction to Smith’s book.
Think of the media-intensive Smith case as the Serial of its time.
Back then a good friend of mine was studying at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and interviewed Smith. “He’s guilty,” my friend said. “The guy is brilliant, but he’s also a liar.” Later Bill Buckley said the same thing.
It haunts me that I was snookered by Smith, and comforts me none to know I wasn’t alone.
This of course makes no case at all against Adnan Syed. He might be innocent as a lamb. And I’d like to say he’s innocent until proven guilty. But his guilt has already been decided by a court of law, so now it’s the other way around: he needs to prove his innocence. Or at least raise the shadow of doubt to a height under which he can be sprung.
I worry about what will happen if all the current interest in this case results in Adnan’s release. What if he really did kill Hae — meaning he’s as remorseless and manipulative as Edgar Smith?
With the case headed to an appeals court, this now appears possible.
I’ll keep my mind open as I listen through the rest of Series. It’s outstanding radio. And I also invite the @Serial team to look at the Smith case as well — if they haven’t already.* It may not be relevant, but it is similar.
Bonus case: Jack Henry Abbott.
* (14 December) Have they? I’ve now listened through Episode 7 and so far they haven’t mentioned it.
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