Sunday, November 30, 2014

I, Too, Have Thoughts About Serial...

Some have requested that I share my thoughts on “Serial”, the smash-hit podcast that re-examines the conviction of a man named Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend when they were high school seniors, 15 years ago.  Well soon back to Do the Right Thing (which is now tragically timely)...
I’m obsessed with true-crime stories in general and false-conviction stories in particular, devouring every detail in cases such as the recent exoneration of Ricky Jackson. As a result, I’ve become convinced that false-convictions are far more common than most people think, and there are probably tens of thousands of wrongly-convicted people in America’s prisons, especially dark-skinned men.

That said, I’ve now listened to every second of “Serial”, and I’ve never seriously doubted for even one of those seconds that Adnan Syed is guilty.

Here’s the thing: This series is clearly not aimed at a typical true-crime audience, and it seems to me that its success is somewhat predicated on that unfamiliarity. The production values and philosophical tone peg this as true-crime for listeners who thought they were too sophisticated for true crime, which gives the show a fresh perspective and makes it a good listening experience, but also gives it license to be frustratingly naive. Koenig is a veteran reporter, and I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time, but it’s a little odd that she herself adopts such a credulous persona here. On one level, this is a smart narrative choice that makes her into a compelling hero, but it can lead to some eye-rolling.

The problem is that many of the supposedly exculpatory aspects that Koenig dwells upon would be seen as non-issues for an audience familiar with this sort of case. Here are four big ones:
  • #1: She keeps focusing on the fact that, while Syed had some motivation, he didn’t have enough. Wouldn’t he have just shrugged off the break-up?
...But who has a good motivation to kill an 18 year old honors student? Nobody. There’s no good reason to do it. But it keeps happening. Most not-for-profit murders don’t make good sense to anyone but the murderer. We have her diary saying that she doesn’t know why he can’t just get over the break-up. That’s more proof-of-motive than you usually find in such cases.
  • #2: She focuses on the fact that there are dozens of discrepancies in the various accounts, and the main witness’s story changes somewhat each he tells it.
...But this is always true. There has never once been a murder case without baffling discrepancies and inconsistencies in honest testimony. The only time this doesn’t happen is when everybody “gets their story straight” beforehand. What we call “memories” are a crude compromise between our actual sensory input at the time and the shifting self-narratives we craft in our heads. This whole series shows why it’s almost impossible to convict a millionaire (like O.J. or Robert Blake) of a crime, no matter how obvious their guilt is: because any case, even if it’s “open and shut”, starts to seem improbable if you have enough time and enough money to pick apart every inconsistency.
  • #3: She focuses on the fact that Syed is a nice, charming guy on the phone.
...Again, this is very common. Have you noticed that pre-recorded messages that keeps reminding her that she’s talking to an inmate? There’s a reason for that. Many, many prisoners are nice and charming, and you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re talking to. If he’s guilty of doing what Jay says he did (killing with several days’ premeditation), it would be weird if he didn’t have that affect: Listening to him talk, he sounds as if he could be a innocent, affable guy or, just as likely, he could be a charming psychopath. They’re hard to tell apart. Psychopaths, because they have no core self, are very good at becoming the charming person who you want them to be.
  • #4 She focuses on the fact that there’s little physical evidence.
...This is also very common. For the most part, cases with physical evidence don’t go to trial. If you’re nailed, then you’re nailed. If there’s a trial, it’s almost always a “he said / he said” case like this. This is why it sucks to be a prosecutor, defense attorney, or juror. The overwhelming pressure to make a plea deal creates a situation in which every jury decision is a pure judgment call. To a certain extent, Koenig is falling prey to the “CSI effect”: she shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s no smoking gun evidence introduced at trial.
On one level, I shouldn’t be surprised at all by the popularity of the show: it combines the excellent radio journalism of “This American Life” with the compulsive thrills of the true-crime genre. But I still find it a little odd, for a few reasons:

I always listen to “This American Life”, and the pilot for this show ran as a regular episode of that show, so I listened to it at the time, and enjoyed it, but I decided at the time not to make the jump over to the Serial podcast, because it seemed as there wasn’t going to be enough meat to the story. After all, Koenig had already made clear from the outset that no new big piece of exculpatory or condemnatory evidence would come out, and no new trial would be triggered, so it sounded like the whole 12 hours would be circling over the same ground already covered by the pilot. Now that I’ve gone back and listened to the whole thing, I find that it is well worth listening to, but my original opinion hasn’t changed. This isn’t really a “serial” in that it has no cliff-hangers and really no plot progression, just an ever closer-examination of the same evidence.

In addition to the lack of “Ah-ha” or “Gotcha” moment, there are other reasons that, of all the true crime stories out there, this one doesn’t seem like a particularly good candidate for a 12-part series:
  • Too many trial participants refused to be recorded (the detectives, the prosecution, the key witness, etc) or died (the defense attorney), so we’re still getting a very incomplete picture, even after all this investment.
  • Of the people who are on tape, there’s a distinct lack of “real characters”. Simply put, nobody is “giving good tape”. There are no weirdos or slicksters or dim-bulbs or tough guys that might make you say “Wow, I could just listen to this guy talk forever.” The case is just kind of dreary. There’s not a lot of personality here.
  • There’s no outrage factor. There are so many hundreds of “Innocence Project” cases with outrageous abuses by the cops or prosecution and/or infuriating incompetence by the defense. There’s not really any of that here, from what we’ve heard so far. This is just a very typical case, no matter how life-shattering it was for the victim and the accused. There’s some value in re-examining a more typical court conviction but 12 hours is pushing it, especially when there are so many more fascinating and/or infuriating cases out there.
The most baffling thing is that this show has proven to be more popular than “This American Life” itself, which has been producing superlative downloads every week for almost twenty years, including many, many true crime stories even more compelling than this one. If you discovered this show independent of TAL, then do yourself a big favor and dive into the TAL archives. They do a lot of stuff other than true-crime, but here are ten of their best true-crime episodes that you can start out with:
  1. #210: “Perfect Evidence”, on DNA exonerations and false confessions.
  2. #356: “The Prosecutor”
  3. #385: “Pro Se”
  4. #387: “Arms Trader” (This is a good example of an crime episode with just as much ambiguity but lots of huge plot twists, wild personalities, and the cheerful participation of the both the defense and the prosecution, led by a merciless young go-getter named Christopher Christie)
  5. #405: “Inside Job”
  6. #414: “Right to Remain Silent” (with amazing secret recordings by a whistleblower cop)
  7. #419: “Petty Tyrant”
  8. #487 and 488: “Harper High School”, Parts one and two
  9. #507: “Confessions”
  10. #536 “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra”
Anyway, that’s my two cents. Feel free to let me know in the comments if I come across as merciless as Chris Christie...


J.A. said...

I'm a long-time fan of This American Life, but I find myself more loyal in my listening to Serial, and am somehow more invested in it, even though I agree there have been years of more compelling and better told stories on TAL.

That being said, I have never seriously doubted that Adnan was guilty either. I think by the third episode or so I was pretty sure he did it, and I haven't heard a lot to change my mind. The case isn't particularly special, it's not a miscarriage of justice, it wasn't a particularly shocking murder, and at least from the telling so far, it didn't have behind-the-scenes post-murder teenage drama like RIVER'S EDGE or BULLY, or some of the real life cases that are similar. But it is still interesting to hear the uncertainty about, and details of, an "ordinary" murder case. Yes, Koenig seems to be incredibly naive at times and that can be a little frustrating. And of course hearing her ponder over whether Adnan had enough motivation to kill, or wondering whether someone who is so nice on the phone could really kill someone, says much more about the character she is playing in this series than it does about Adnan or what happened. But I'm enjoying the procedure, and even though I'm sure Adnan is guilty, I still like the small, lingering uncertainty, which I suppose is there in most murder cases without slam-dunk physical evidence. Of course, something like the TAL episode "Liars" probably did much better with similar themes, and is something I still remember after not hearing it for ten or fifteen years.

I can't really say why it's so popular... but I find myself looking forward to it every week. I hope someone else can break down why...

Matt Bird said...

I think a big part of the appeal is in listening to a smart person come to the belated realization that the justice system (ANY justice system) makes life-shattering decisions based on things that nobody can ever actually know to an absolute certainty. We're drawn into the abyss that opens up underneath her as she comes to accept the horror of the unknowable.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Having not heard any of "Serial," and going by only on what you've written here, maybe part of the appeal is that True Crime stories are often written or told in a knowing, lurid, world- weary way, and this one isn't? That's my impression of True Crime.

Not only would this appeal to the folks who normally don't pay attention to the genre, it might intrigue those well acquainted with it. That would also explain the overly naive perspective of Koenig. (This may be a misread of True Crime and/or Serial.)

As you point out, doing so shifts the emphasis from the luridness of the crime to the fundamental confusions and uncertainties that accompany the investigation.

It's a risky topic to use in a story, because it's maddening and unsatisfying by its very nature. We hate that. But the thing is, it's true, and it's a truth that's hard for us to handle. That makes it ripe for use. We want to learn about it, even though we hate it. Maybe people respond to "Serial" because it works with that truth in a way that's palatable. We're eased into it, and the fact that it is a true story makes the harsh truth easier to accept. We aren't being jerked around by an author making a hamfisted point -- this is what really happened.

j.s. said...

I agree with both of you about Adnan, though I wasn't so quick to write him off until we heard more from and about Jay. It just never made sense to me that Jay would lie and implicate himself as an accessory after the fact if Adnan hadn't done it.

And I agree with Matt's incisive comment above, which is almost perfect. Though I think I'd add that the horror of the unknowable isn't just about the machinery of the justice system, it's about the nature of character. And that's really where the show lives for me, as a sort of intimate-epic character study about everyday people, where all of the little details of their lives take on the weight and proportion of plot twists in a show like BREAKING BAD. Matt's right that most of it shouldn't matter the way it feels like it does -- certainly not when it comes to adjudicating the case -- and yet that's both the trick of the show's unique alchemy and the way the world actually works, certainly for Koenig, for the jurors, for all of the friends and relatives of Hae, Adnan, Jay, etc. When they're trying to tell themselves stories to make sense of what happened it's almost always framed as a question of character: Who is (or who was) this person really?

When someone does something, big or small, that doesn't square with our previous notions of his or her personality we say they did something "out of character."

I don't think Adnan needs to necessarily be either a cold-blooded killer or the proverbial wrong man. There are good non-psychopath reasons why, even if he's guilty as sin, he'd put up a front now, why he'd never admit to his friends and family what he'd done -- even if it wasn't done without all conscience or, even if it was a crime of passion he now regrets. It seems pretty clear that such knowledge would destroy them and leave him without any support system.

If I'm remembering correctly, someone in the SERIAL subreddit wrote that a cop friend of his once said that what surprised him when he became a detective was how common it was for murderers and murder victims not to know that an act of deadly violence was coming until a few seconds before it did.

Matt Bird said...

But I think that, given the facts of the case, he must have known that he was going to do it in advance, which makes him much creepier.

As I think about it, I think one of the most telling things is that Syed was elected Homecoming King despite being part of a tiny minority at his high school, and then less than a year later he was elected to the prisoner's representative board in his new home despite being part of an even tinier minority there. That sort of intense charm isn't healthy. I've becomes convinced that most elected figures are psychopaths, because they excel at being (as Hart Bochner says in APARTMENT ZERO) "Whoever you want me to be."

j.s. said...

The problem with armchair diagnosis of psychopathy, though, is that it often ignores the more important aspects of such an assessment -- namely, proof of a pattern of behavior across time and in all spheres of a person's life. It's not clear at all that Adnan has this. If his charm were just plain charm and not the easy manipulative glibness that typifies a psychopath, then, without a much more thorough case history, you'd have no way of telling the difference. Which is also the gist of Jon Ronson's critique of the way these labels get applied in the justice system.

I'm not as sure as you are that this crime was definitely premeditated. (The cover-up certainly seems not to have been preplanned or executed very well.) The facts of the case indicate only that Adnan was looking to see Hae, even create a pretext to catch a ride with her. That they were also sort of on-again, off-again until very recently. That Adnan loaned his car to Jay (perhaps for a drug deal and/or just to get their mutual friend a present?) One of the alternate versions of the scenario that Jay supposedly tells someone else is that Adnan did it in the library parking lot, right across from the school. Which would be an even dumber place to plan to kill someone than the Best Buy parking lot (if you've seen the Google Maps and the YouTube route videos)

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, it's true, as Ronson points out, that if you work backwards from a guilty verdict, all other behavior, no matter how good or bad, starts to seem psychopathic, which makes it a very dangerous legal term.

As for premeditation, I guess that I was just going by the fact that (iirc) Jay said that Adnan told him in advance that he was going to kill Hae, but it's not like I believe Jay to the extent that I think him incapable of adding that flourish. He's clearly embellishing left and right, even though I think his story is essentially true.

Still, if it was a crime of passion, Adnan seems to have recomposed himself very quickly, and summoned up the wherewithal to hide and/or destroy all of the physical evidence expertly.

j.s. said...

Not that I believe that psychopaths don't exist or that it isn't useful to reckon with them, as they do test the limits of human empathy in fiction and real life.

Just that a few juicy ripped from the headlines tidbits about certain characteristics most psychopaths share aren't enough to label any criminal. One of the ironies is that, to do an assessment properly, as Robert Hare intended, you actually are supposed to deliberately ignore details of the so-called "index offense" (the violent crime for which the subject is initially put on trial or in prison). So the sort of kneejerk reactions of "how could anyone who wasn't a monster do such a thing?!" goes right out the window.

The best book I've yet read about this has an even more ridiculous title than Ronson's -- THE PSYCHOPATH WHISPERER by Kent A. Kiehl. Kiehl is a world renowned neuroscientist and expert on psychopathy, a protege of Hare's. He has an MRI lab devoted to studying the brains of psychopaths. But he also has decades of experience using the checklist and making clinical assessments for lawyers, courts and parole boards. There are a number of case studies in the book, including a historical side-by-side assessment of John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau.

I suppose I used to be as suspicious of the nature of excess charm as Matt, but as I grew up and watched a somewhat distant relative and a very close friend -- both of whom have that Clinton thing of extreme extroversion, of genuinely thriving on the energy of one-to-many connections -- I've realized there are all manner of folks on the charm continuum. Psychopaths, narcissists and jerks on one extreme and relatively sane, empathetic and even altruistic ones on the other.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, I'm fascinated by Kiehl's work. I partially based the hero of a thriller I wrote on Kiehl.

j.s. said...

Koenig's teaser for next week's episode 11 seems to imply that we will finally get an Adnan psychopath test.

j.s. said...

Jon Ronson in the U.K. Guardian: "As someone who’s written a book about psychopaths, I’ve had about a million people tweet me to ask if I think Adnan is one. I think it’s totally irresponsible to diagnose someone from afar, whether you’re a clinician or not, and I’m not. But for what it’s worth, nothing in Adnan’s conversations with Sarah rings any bells from the time I attended a course that teaches people how to identify psychopaths in part through the nuances of their language."