Serial, radio review: Series ends and justice turns out to be deaf

The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play armchair detective

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The Independent Culture

So that’s it. After 12 episodes filled with questions about whether a man is justifiably serving life in prison for murder, the hugely popular Serial has come to an end. All that remains are more questions.

The final programme in a gripping series scrutinising a potential miscarriage of justice over a US High School murder was available for download today, keenly awaited by millions who – if seeking a tidy conclusion to an outwardly simple murder case – may have been disappointed.

Presenter Sarah Koenig has spent a year examining the case of Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old jailed for life for the murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Maryland in 1999. Prosecutors say that he was driven to murder after she ended their relationship. Syed – in a series of lucid and perceptive recorded phone calls from his high-security prison – says they have the wrong man. His supporters say that Syed, of Pakistani descent, has been the victim of a judicial system affected by racism, a defence solicitor whose powers were on the wane and a police inquiry that failed to follow leads that pointed to his innocence. But the case against Syed was powerful: a friend gave a largely consistent statement saying they buried the body together and cell phone evidence put him close to the burial site at about the right time. He cannot remember where he was on the night.


Over months of analysis of court records, interviews and research, Ms Koenig re-examined the theories, and raised considerably more questions than answers. One of them was posed by the narrator herself: “Did we just spend a year applying excessive scrutiny to a perfectly ordinary case?”

Syed’s guilt or innocence is one unanswered question. Why the series has been so successful is another. Although Ms Koenig has appeared to be batting for Syed, her switching between belief in his guilt or innocence has allowed the listener to play armchair detective. This is key to its success, according to miscarriage of justice lawyer Sophie Walker. “It has all the hallmarks of a miscarriage of justice case,” she said, though she expresses no opinion on whether she thinks Syed is guilty. “The focus on just one case over a long period of time is incredible. There are very few lawyers who have the flexibility to work so constantly on one case.”

Justice can be inconclusive. But Syed remains in prison, and for Hae Min Lee’s family – who took no part in the programme – the painful circumstances of their daughter’s death have been played out publicly. And now the show moves on to series two.