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My thoughts on the podcast, “Serial”

***spoilers for “Serial” below****

As a criminal justice major and aspiring criminal defense attorney, I am obsessed with investigative podcasts. I got into them about 2 years ago, when I listened to Payne Lindsey’s “Up and Vanished” for the first time. Payne Lindsey, as an amateur podcaster, cracked a cold case murder by investigating and telling the story in his podcast’s first season. It was the coolest, most interesting thing and I was 100% hooked on podcasts from there on out.  Now, I know I’m rambling a little bit, but basically what I am trying to get at is the decision as to what option I should pick for the purpose of this assignment was a no brainer for me – it had to be the podcast “Serial.”

This first season of “Serial,” hosted by Sarah Koenig, told the story of a murder that happened in Baltimore in 1999. An 18 year old girl named Hae went missing after school one day, and a few weeks later was found dead in Leakin Park (a forest/park area in Baltimore, Maryland). Her cause of death was manual strangulation. Investigators started looking at potential suspects and different people in her life. Eventually they decided to move forward with charging Hae’s ex boyfriend, Adnan, with her murder. He was convicted and is currently serving a life sentence in prison. However, the host of this podcast believes that there may be more to the story, and maybe Adnan is innocent. This podcast explores different aspects of the story, and tries to understand what really happened, and who is truly responsible for Hae‘s death. 

Sarah Koenig unpacks a lot of the evidence (or lack thereof) that the state was basing their case on throughout the podcast. One aspect that almost all of the state’s case was dependent on was a boy named Jay, who was friends with Adnan. He told the police that Adnan planned, killed and disposed of Hae’s body, and that he confided in Jay with all of this information. He even gave police Adnan’s exact timeline. However, there is a potential witness who saw and spoke with Adnan during the time frame that Jay claims he was killing and burying Hae. This alibi, however, was never explored or introduced by Adnan’s defense attorney at trial. What baffles me is that his defense attorney didn’t even reach out to the witness once. Later, to not much surprise, Adnan’s defense attorney was disbarred for a different case for doing an insufficient job. 

One aspect of this whole case that scares me the most is the fact that it is so easy to blame someone for a crime. Although there were statements from Jay that makes it seem like Adnan did it, there was really no other concrete evidence that proved that he killed her. A quote that stuck out at me in the podcast was when Adnan was being interviewed by the host from prison, and asked “what was it about me that would allow someone to even entertain the possibility that I could do this?” (episode 6). This idea made me really question everything I know about the legal system, sometimes people are convicted without any evidence directly linking them to the crime. There were no fingerprints or DNA matching Adnan’s at the crime scene, he was convicted based on the fact that he was Hae’s ex-boyfriend, and statements that Jay gave to the police. Sarah Koenig raised many questions throughout the podcast, that maybe Jay was lying and was instead protecting someone else for the crime and framing Adnan. What scares me is you can be living a normal life, and then one day be at the forefront of a murder case (hopefully that happens to none of us). I know that out of any suspects or people looked into, Adnan looked the most guilty for the crime. But does that mean he did it?

On the flip side, it’s also just as scary to think that someone as normal and convincing as Adnan could’ve actually done it. He was a normal high school student: running track, homecoming King, studying and doing well in school, having a lot of friends, etc. Listening to his interviews throughout this podcast is very convincing that he did not kill Hae. I kept thinking, this guy? There’s just no way. But, what’s scary is the thought that Adnan, someone who reminds me of every other high school boy I went to school with, could’ve actually done it.  Don, Hae’s boyfriend at the time of her death, even said that Adnan “was someone that I would’ve hung out with if I knew him in school” (episode 12).

Aspects within this podcast reminded of some of the things we’ve discussed in class. In many of the works we have read for class, there were themes of believability, innocence and guilt within them. Especially in texts that discuss the court system and how they handle different crimes. This podcast told the story, not of a murder, but of a teenage boy who went to prison for it, and whether he is innocent or guilty. Sadly, the ending of this podcast wasn’t like Payne Lindsey’s “Up and Vanished” where he cracked the case. Adnan was later granted a retrial but the same conclusion came from it. He is still in jail for Hae’s murder, and I can’t help but feel unsettled with that ending.

The TRC – Just or Unjust?

While reading Krog’s “Country of My Skull” and watching the documentary “Long Night’s Journey into Day” I was very focused on the portrayal of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in both. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, prior to watching and reading about South Africa and the violence within its apartheid society, I was completely unaware of it. The TRC especially interested me, because it is very different from the justice system here in the United States. The United States is primarily focused on incarceration (although many say it is also focused on rehabilitation) – while in South Africa it is shown that the TRC’s main focus is reconciliation as a form of justice.

One thing I think is a positive about the TRC is that the victims often get some form of closure. In the documentary, the perpetrators were brought forth in front of the TRC and confessed their crimes to the families and friends of the victims. There were also scenes where the the families got to meet face to face with the perpetrators and gain some sort of explanation and apology for the crimes committed against their loved one. Similarly, in “Country of My Skull” the TRC was in place to offer some sort of reconciliation and to try and move forward from South Africa’s dark and disturbing past.

Krog tells a narrative of her experience reporting on the TRC, and although the purpose of the TRC is supposed to be positive, there are many upsetting and unjust scenes told within her novel. In fact, in the introduction Krog states “And while some victims and survivors of the apartheid government say their agony won’t end so long as perpetrators get amnesty and victims get next to nothing (reparation, for those who qualify, comes to less than $200 per victim), others say that learning how and where their loved ones met their end has provided a certain closure, a measure of peace” (pg 10). This brings up the question if the TRC really does provide justice or if it is inherently unjust. 

Long Night’s Journey Into Day – Grief, Forgiveness, and Motherhood

“Long Night’s Journey Into Day” is a film about the racial and political violence in South Africa during its period of apartheid rule. The film showed a few of the many horrifying cases of murder that occurred during this time. Some cases were later brought forth in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – which was a way for perpetrators to confess to the families and friends of their victims, and ask for amnesty. One of the main purposes of the TRC was to reveal South Africa’s dark past, rather than bury it. 

The film started off with the case of Amy Biehl, a young American girl, who was studying and reporting on the racial divide and apartheid in South Africa. During her time in Cape Town, she was brutally murdered by a black mob. This case really stuck out to me for many reasons. One being how her parents reacted to this tragedy. I thought it was borderline crazy, yet so inspiring that her parents actually supported and pushed for the TRC to grant the murderers of Amy amnesty. The scene where Amy’s parents visited the homes of one of the perpetrator’s mothers was shocking as well – that they could feel compassion for the mother of a man who killed their daughter, and were able to visit and have a conversation with her. Another aspect of that story that stuck out to me was when one of her murderers was interviewed and felt a great deal of remorse after hearing Amy’s parents speak about their daughter at trial. Hearing about Amy’s personality and passions and her mission in South Africa really humanized her and impacted everyone. Another scene in particular that was extremely upsetting to watch was when one of the mothers of another victim started to scream and cry during the trial of his murderer. It made me so upset to the point of discomfort – like I had no place watching this mother’s raw pain when seeing and hearing about the death of her son. Dr. Gulick truly put it best in today’s class discussion – that the feeling of discomfort is similar to seeing someone naked. It was a very impactful scene, I could see other women sitting in the audience at the trial who were so moved that they too were crying. 

It is clear that one main focal point of the film was on the mothers of the victims. Although they all handled grief in different ways, something that was somewhat common among all of them was their ability to forgive. The mothers were able to sit down with the perpetrators and express their sadness and confusion for the crime, but also forgive them for their actions. One mother was talking to the black police officer who killed her son, and stated that as upset as she is, she must forgive him in order to heal and move forward. “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” was very eye-opening for me and I honestly can’t believe I hadn’t heard more about it before – it was stated that South Africa had the most notorious form of racial domination since Nazi Germany, and I think it is definitely a part of history that needs to be talked about more. 

Questions of Legality – Eichmann in Jerusalem

While reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I had many questions racing through my mind. The Holocaust is arguably one of the most, if not the most, atrocious mass murder in human history, and it disgusts me to think that something of its scale actually occurred – and was able to occur for as long as it did. Nazis, like Eichmann, along with other individuals who played a role in orchestrating and carrying out such an awful event deserved to be held accountable for their crimes. However, as I was reading Arendt’s novel, I had many questions of legality come to mind.

One question being how a person can even be punished for committing a crime of this magnitude. The Holocaust resulted in the death of millions and affected millions more. Innocent men, women, and children were either put to death or worked to death in concentration camps; families and communities were torn apart. Frankly, I don’t believe there is any punishment that can be deemed as “fit” or “just” for the individuals who played a role in the execution of millions of people. In one section in the text, it is brought up that Eichmann should have “spent the rest of his life at hard labor” (pg 250), because of the torturous and forceful labor so many of those in the concentration camps had to endure. This makes me wonder if the justice system can even work in a situation like this, if there is any punishment that can be imposed matching the crime. The only punishment that comes close enough is, as Arendt discusses in the text, the death penalty; “he must hang” (pg 279).

As I continued reading I also thought about another aspect of legality in regards to Eichmann and other Nazi trials, and it is a question of jurisdiction. The Holocaust posed enormous legal issues for the international community. It was a crime against humanity, an entire population of people. So, who is actually responsible for holding the Nazis responsible? Eichmann’s trial takes place in an Israeli court and was orchestrated by the Israeli Prime Minister. Whereas the famous Nuremberg Trials were located in Germany. This made me wonder what gave certain regions the authority to put individuals on trial. (It could totally be an obvious answer but I’m just unsure).

Overall, Arendt does a great job commenting on Eichmann’s trial throughout her novel. She also brings up the phrase “banality of evil” in the text which I found very interesting to consider. It is another area of legality that is brought into question, which is individual intent/accountability. Eichmann claimed he may have committed these acts, but doesn’t have the terrible, anti-semitic mindset that was expected from someone like him. In fact, Arendt states that Eichmann was terrifyingly normal at his trial. Although Eichmann ends up being found guilty, it is interesting to consider this because intent is a crucial element to prove in the court of law.

Issues within the DOI: What isn’t taught in middle school history class

Jacques Derrida’s “Declarations of Independence” calls one of the most well-known and accepted historic documents, the Declaration of Independence, into question. In Derrida’s piece, he critiques and discusses overlooked flaws within the DOI. One of these flaws being whether the DOI is truly representative of the People. The word “We” is used over and over again throughout the document, but who exactly is We? When I had first read the DOI, I assumed that this “We” meant that it was a consensual declaration, inclusive of the People and the government. However, reading it now, I am questioning if that is true.

 At the beginning of the document, it seems more inclusive, they are using We in a way that might make one believe these really are the feelings and wants of everyone. The beginning of the DOI includes the phrase, “one people” which adds to this feeling of inclusiveness. However, towards the end of the document, it becomes a different type of We; a We that only includes Congress. For example, the start of the last paragraph of the DOI states, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…” The We in this section is defined as solely being the Representatives of the United States of America, who are writing on behalf of the People. Derrida describes this exclusiveness by stating “They speak, declare themselves and sign in the name of…” (Derrida pg 9). This creates a feeling of distance between the People and the government, and makes me wonder if the DOI can really be considered a legitimate and even legal document at all. 

Derrida voices in his piece that the power lies in the signature, but since it is only signed by members of state congress, can it really be considered a document for and by the People? Derrida also calls into question the idea of timing, “Is it the good people have already freed themselves in fact and are only stating the fact of this emancipation in [par] the declaration? Or is it rather that they free themselves at the instant of and by [par] the signature of this Declaration?” (pg 9). This is an interesting idea to consider, because the People were not sitting beside those composing and signing the DOI, so were they already considered free from Great Britain or awaiting this document to be released to be proclaimed free? I never really gave much thought to the issues Derrida raised, and just assumed that a document like the DOI would be flawless.

Legal topics in The Furies

Within Aeschylus’ play, The Furies, there are many topics regarding law and order and the justice system as a whole that are portrayed. Something we talked about as a class prior to reading this play is the ideology of “an eye for an eye” and whether it is moral. This is seen within The Furies, when Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. After Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, their son Orestes takes matters into his own hands, and kills his mother. (So, this situation is actually an eye for an eye for an eye). For the remainder of the play, Orestes is being held accountable by the Furies for committing the act of matricide. 

The concept of “an eye for an eye” is a very interesting one to think about. In some degree, “an eye for an eye” can also be argued as being the basis of the justice system as a whole. For example, those receiving the death penalty as a form of punishment for committing the act of murder alines with exactly what “an eye for an eye” is defined as. When being punished for your crimes is a result of the legal system it is deemed as being just, as opposed to someone outside the justice system taking matters into their own hands, which is deemed morally wrong. Although a complicated topic, “an eye for an eye” is very interesting to think about in terms of within both literature and the real world. 

Another topic that can be examined within Aeschylus’ play The Furies, is the discussion of individual accountability. Within the play, Orestes shifts the blame of killing his mother to Apollo, who he claims orchestrated the crime. This begs the question, who is to blame, the one that committed the act or the one who told the other to do so? This is an issue that is seen in real world situations as well. Although both would technically be culpable in a court of law, which one truly deserves to have the harsher punishment for the crime?  

Overall, The Furies sheds light on many topics in regards to law and order and the justice system. It is interesting reading and discussing these topics because although they are being portrayed in a literary and Mythical setting, they are still relevant to today’s society as well.