In Depth

Serial podcast: what we learnt from episode 12, What We Know

Millions of listeners tune in as the global podcast phenomenon Serial reaches its conclusion

After listening to the final episode of the global hit podcast Serial, fans of the 12-episode experiment in narrative journalism may come away feeling bereft and perhaps even a little disappointed. As the first season of this audacious project reached its conclusion, it did so with neither an acquittal nor a smoking gun.

With the series now complete, listeners are, in many ways, left no wiser than when the whole thing began as to whether Adnan Syed – the man at the centre of the podcast – is guilty or innocent of the crime for which he was convicted 15 years ago. 

After a year of painstaking investigation and almost three months of broadcast, listeners have become enthralled in the story of the historical murder of teenager Hae Min Lee. 

The podcast has been presented like a crime thriller, with new details of the case revealed each week by journalist Sarah Koenig. In the last instalment, Koenig and her team summarise what they considered to be the facts of the case, and attempted to separate them from speculation and misinformation.

In doing so, she speaks again to some of the key people in the case including Don, Hae’s boyfriend at the time of her death. It emerges that he – like Adnan – never tried to call Hae after she went missing. 

Koenig also speaks to Josh, a former friend of the prosecution’s star witness Jay, whose testimony was crucial to Adnan’s conviction. Much of what Josh says bears out Jay's version of events, and Josh rejects the notion that Jay himself might have been the killer.

In preparation for the final show, Koenig says that she and her producers went back over everything they had assembled throughout the past year, including case files, interviews and cell records.  

The process turns up a few interesting discoveries. First, they manage to find an alternative explanation for the so-called “Nisha call”, a phone call made from Adnan’s phone to his friend Nisha that seemed not to fit with his timeline of events. Their new theory suggests that the call could be nothing more sinister than an accidental "butt dial". 

On the other hand, the producers find evidence that seems to count against Adnan when they locate an architectural sketch that indicates that the Best Buy supermarket where Jay says Adnan called him to come help him bury Hae's body may, as Jay said, have had a public phone. Several witnesses had previously suggested the opposite.

With no confessions and no definitive evidence, Koenig says she and her team can only speculate about what happened on 13 January 1999. "There is no point trying to come up with a most likely story of what happened to Hae because you can't prove it," she says. "Bereft of more facts even the soberest scenario holds no more water than the most hair-brained. In the equation of Adnan's case, all speculation is equally speculative."

The podcast seems briefly to be building towards a spectacular conclusion when Dierdre Enright, the director of the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project contacts Koenig with a revelation. Enright, whose team is dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, says she has issued a motion to test the DNA evidence from the case in a bid to link the crime not with Adnan but with a man named Ronald Lee Moore (now dead), who was convicted around the same time as Adnan for a similar crime. Koenig says that in her view the idea that Moore could have been responsible for both murders is interesting but it is "a long shot".

In a final interview conducted last weekend, Adnan asks Koenig if she has an ending for the podcast. He suggests to her that she should "just go down the middle. I don’t think you should take a side."

Rather than following his advice, at the end of the series Koenig shows her hand. "You, me, the state of Maryland, I don’t think any of us can say what happened to Hae. As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors."

However, she adds, "I'm not a juror, so just as a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think? If you asked me to swear that I think Adnan is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt. I don't like that I do but I do."

When she first started the project, Koenig says that she had felt that "certainty seemed so attainable", but now that it is coming to a close she realises how elusive certainty is. Instead, she says, like all of her listeners she is left only with questions because as hard as she tried, she never managed to find out all the facts.

"Now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders, like an aggravated cop," Koenig says. "Don’t tell me Adnan's a nice guy, don’t tell me Jay was scared, don’t tell me who might have made some five-second phone call. Just tell me the facts, ma'am, because we didn’t have them 15 years ago and we still don't have them now."

Recommended

The 17 best true crime podcasts
Person wearing headphones
In Depth

The 17 best true crime podcasts

PM launches ten-year drugs plan amid cocaine in Commons claims
A young man sniffs cocaine
Why we’re talking about . . .

PM launches ten-year drugs plan amid cocaine in Commons claims

Recipe: Flor bakery’s brown butter cakes 
Flor bakery’s brown butter cakes
On the menu

Recipe: Flor bakery’s brown butter cakes 

New TV crime dramas to watch in 2021
Olivia Colman and David Thewlis star in Landscapers
In Depth

New TV crime dramas to watch in 2021

Popular articles

Is Boris Johnson’s authority ‘evaporating’?
Boris Johnson
Behind the scenes

Is Boris Johnson’s authority ‘evaporating’?

Is World War Three looming?
Xi Jinping
In Depth

Is World War Three looming?

Vladimir Putin and his mysterious love life
Vladimir Putin and his now ex-wife Lyudmila Putina
Profile

Vladimir Putin and his mysterious love life

The Week Footer Banner