Serial was impossible to escape. Unless you resisted every urge to participate in the phenomenon, you probably know who Adnan Syed is and you probably know he is serving time for the murder of his ex girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
Each week producer Sarah Koenig went point by point through all the players in Hae Min Lee’s murder. She explored the landscapes, courtrooms, diary entries, and police interrogations long forgotten by almost all but the few close to the crime. It was impossible not to get caught up in the drama and mystery of it. Just a few episodes into the series this past fall, I was waking up at the crack of dawn on Thursdays and reaching for my headphones before I started boiling water for coffee.
It’s easy to credit the success of the podcast with our collective fascination with whodunit murder mysteries. But that doesn’t really capture what made this show so terrific. The key was Sarah Koenig.
In one captivating episode after the next, Koenig retraced every important detail in the case and explained it in a way that was understandable and riveting. Using a storyteller’s sensibility, Serial made relatable characters out of Hae, Adnan, and Koenig. We cared about how long it took to get from the school parking lot to Best Buy because we cared about what happened to Hae Min Lee. The stakes—the lives of these people made relatable by the show—were everything to us. By the end of the series, every listener obsessed over the details of the case. I’ve yet to meet a person who’s listened to Serial’s entire catalog and not walked into an inescapable conversation about what happened on the day Hae Min Lee went missing.
Such was the power—the art—of Serial.
What the series didn’t do is find definitive proof of the killer, but not for lack of trying. Koenig pored over the evidence again and again and just couldn’t close the case. If we are to fault her for not fingering the murderer, we must assume that there is enough evidence out there in cardboard boxes and cell phone records to ID the person who strangled Hae Min Lee. It’s a possibility, yes, but one almost too tough to imagine after bearing witness to her obsessive investigation.
But maybe there is some stone left unturned? Maybe there is some yet unspoken testimony from a key witness? Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It seemed we’d never know, but then a few weeks ago we got news that a new podcast on the case was coming. Called Undisclosed, it was a show created by lawyer Rabia Chaudry, a longtime friend of Adnan’s and the catalyst for bringing Sarah Koenig onto the case. Chaudry would co-host the Undisclosed podcast with attorneys Susan Simpson and Colin Miller. All three work on behalf of the Adnan Syed Trust, a legal fund created for exonerating Adnan.
I’ll admit I was shocked at first to hear of the podcast. Part of me—the cynical part—wondered if it was just another case of someone trying to cash in on a national craze. However, Chaudry has been on Adnan’s side since the beginning. The truth is that Adnan wouldn’t be where he is today—in position to win an appeal—if Chaudry hadn’t championed his cause. So I set aside my cynical instincts and decided this might be a good faith attempt to set the record straight and prove Adnan’s innocence.
If she is indeed determined to set the record straight, though, she must have information we don’t know. Chaudry and her team must surely have something to add that Koenig and her team left out. They must know something definitive that Serial never mentioned. Otherwise, what’s the point?
After listening to the first episode, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know why this podcast exists.
First, the simple stuff: Undisclosed is disorganized. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to follow.
One minute into the show, Chaudry tells listeners that her Undisclosed podcast has no affiliation with Serial. In the next breath she advises us to go back and listen to Serial in order to follow Undisclosed. While it felt like somewhat of a crutch to rely on Serial to avoid explaining context, I was nonetheless willing to go with it. After all, I had listened to Serial religiously. Surely I could pick up on their version of a sequel, right?
I’m afraid not. Right from the start, I was rewinding the audio to recapture what points were actually being made. The hosts talk quickly, they switch narrators as if playing hot potato with the mic, the information is not organized, and very rarely are we given even the smallest amount of context to recognize the plot points in this complicated timeline. No matter how closely you followed Serial, you’ll struggle understanding what points Undisclosed is trying to make.
But forget the presentation—what about the material itself? The show tries to establish a alternative timeline that would disprove the state’s own series of events that led to Adnan’s conviction. That the timeline is problematic was discussed at length in Serial. This show nonetheless takes a stab it by using a different read on cell phone technology, stray remarks by witnesses who didn’t testify, and revised versions from witnesses who did, only years after the fact. The show goes after Jay hard, convinced he is not only a liar, but an amoral collaborator in this miscarriage of justice. Despite the show attempting to provide a new timeline, little of what is presented jumped out at me. And what did raise my eyebrows was vexing, not convincing.
If you’re someone who wants desperately to believe that Adnan Syed is innocent—something he might be and something Chaudry surely believes—then you may not take issue with the show’s evidence. If, however, you have an objective bone in your body, you’ll see this for what it is: a pile of pro-Adnan logical fallacies. While Chaudry owns up to the fact that the show is meant as advocacy on Adnan’s behalf, this nonetheless does not excuse the leaps in logic.
After the lawyerly introductions are made, Chaudry jumps right into attacking the notion that Adnan didn’t remember what he was doing the day of the murder. She argues that he remembers many of the things he was doing on January 13, 1999. Also, she reminds us, memories–given our nature to reconstruct what actually happened–need to be corroborated with other witnesses’ testimony to be validated.
She says, “So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take what we have from Adnan, and then we’re going to take all the statements we have from testimony to police statements to some of the grand jury stuff, and try to corroborate what Adnan has said and try to figure out who’s not remembering correctly and who is remembering correctly.”
If you guessed that Undisclosed is going take the stance that Adnan is someone “who is remembering correctly,” you go to the head of the class. Chaudry wants to convince us that Adnan does remember as the opening gambit in her blockbuster podcast. Here’s the problem: The podcast manages to undermine that argument minutes after she makes it.
At 6:37, Susan Simpson says, “The fact that a witness remembers an event occurring on a certain date isn’t great proof that it actually did occur then, particularly when the witness wasn’t asked about it until months later. So for any given statement in this case, it shouldn’t be accepted that the witness is actually remembering events that occurred January 13th without some independent corroboration beyond that witness’s own statements.”
In other words, memory sucks. We can’t trust it. And if we acknowledge that confabulation–the ability of the mind to fabricate memories with no intention of deceit—is real, then we know that eyewitness testimony can be fuzzy. But we can’t have it two ways.
Why is Adnan’s memory so important, especially when he has misremembered certain things that happened that day (if you recall in Serial, he originally told police he did ask Hae for a ride home from school on the day of the murder but in later testimony changed his story). Who sets the standard for corroboration? And what do we make of all the witnesses who saw something different?
It feels like the only honest statement to make is: We have no idea what happened on January, 13, 1999. Didn’t we just go through all this with Sarah Koenig?
Here’s a doozie from 9:00 when Undisclosed becomes something of an M.C. Escher print, spiraling around on its own contradictions: “It’s worth noting that Krista’s memory now of that conversation is different from what it allegedly was back in March of ’99, when she gave a police interview. But, as we’ll discuss in later episodes, there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of that report. Here’s what Krista remembers now…”
If this sounds suspiciously like it contradicts points the show is trying to make about memory, it’s not the only time it happens. This is a recurring theme in the podcast. Right after the lawyers establish memory as a very tricky thing, they start picking favorite memories the way gamblers pick horses.
The thing is, even if a later episode proves that anyone’s testimony from 1999 was false, why would their memory be better now? Didn’t we just learn that “for any given statement in this case, it shouldn’t be accepted that the witness is actually remembering events that occurred January 13th without some independent corroboration beyond that witness’s own statements?”
I could go on and on. There were so many moments of this show that ground my ability to follow it to a halt. It’s important to emphasize how consistently you lose the thread of each point Undisclosed claims to be making. Sometimes you don’t understand why we care or what it’s trying to prove. Many times the lack of logic leaves you challenging everything the hosts are saying.
Okay, here’s one more: If you remember anything from Serial or the subsequent appeals, you’ll know that a young woman named Asia McClain wrote Adnan a letter a few days after he was arrested on February 28th to say that she remembered seeing him in the library the day Hae disappeared. Adnan did not remember seeing her when first contacted by the police. He did not use her as an alibi or mention her in his first interview with authorities after the murder. In fact, up until that moment in March, two months after the murder, Adnan had been unable to account for where he was after school that day in the minutes in which the state says Hae was killed.
Let me repeat that: Adnan was unable to account for where he was after school the day Hae Min Lee disappeared.
This was a sticking point in the original case. Adnan could not remember where he was. All he had was Asia in March saying, “I saw you that day in the library.” Ultimately, she did not testify and he had no alibi.
Now, Undisclosed rewrites history by telling us that Adnan remembers being in the library and seeing Asia McClain. We don’t get any details of the letter from Asia “jogging his memory.” Attorney Colin Miller provides this as his support for why we should trust this detail: “Is it possible Adnan is lying? Sure. It’s also possible he’s mistaken. What’s abundantly clear, however, is that his story in 2010 is consistent with the story he told in 1999.”
Let’s look at that timeline. Adnan goes two months after the murder without ever saying he was in the library and saw Asia McClain. Then he gets a letter from Asia in prison and then says that he saw Asia from that point on. In 2010 he still remembers seeing Asia.
In other words, Adnan had Asia’s letter in 1999 months after the murder and he didn’t forget what it said in 2010. That it provided support for a memory he didn’t have is apparently immaterial.
What is the value of this detail? At best, it’s undermined by the ongoing premise that memory—here, Asia’s—is useless, and at worst, it’s a criminal omission of a material fact that Adnan never recalled seeing Asia. I don’t much like being treated like an idiot, and this revision of history treats me exactly like that.
Despite what the creators tell you, it’s not easy to determine much of anything from this Undisclosed podcast. Forget that the audio is terrible. The show features mics that are hotter than an impromptu backyard karaoke session. Also, for the moment, put aside that the show desperately needs a bona fide producer. There are no discernable transitions between subjects or hosts. The worst part of this show is that it is presenting zero evidence in support of Adnan and is making a mockery of this investigation.
This is what a podcast sounds like in the hands of someone with a heavy-handed agenda and no experience producing radio. There is no objective point of view, no evidence that Adnan might be misleading or misremembering anything, and certainly not a single nod to the work done by the prosecution.
This is a podcast that exists as fuel for Adnan’s supporters. For everyone else, its only value is one of rubber-necking. Let’s get on with our lives.