The “true crime” genre holds a morbid fascination, and the new podcast from the team behind This American Life has a doozy of a specimen in a 15-year-old Baltimore murder case that may or may not have resulted in a wrongful conviction of a teenage boy for the murder of his high school sweetheart. The podcast, titled Serial, debuted on Thursday and can be heard here or downloaded for free through iTunes. It will continue with weekly episodes (every Thursday) over the next few months as the show’s investigative team (lead by former Sun reporter and This American Life producer Sarah Koenig) follows up on long-dormant leads, rechecks alibis, and questions assumptions.
The thumbnail sketch of the case is this: Woodlawn High School seniors Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee dated for about eight months into the late fall/early winter of their senior year. They were both bright, good kids in Woodlawn High’s magnet program. They played sports, had lots of friends, and, as first-generation Americans born to immigrant families, were expected to do well in the future. In January 1999, about a month of so after they broke up, Hae Min Lee went missing. About another month later, her body was found in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. She had been strangled. Based largely on the testimony of one person, Adnan was arrested and later convicted of his ex-girlfriend’s murder. He is currently serving his sentence in a Western Maryland prison. He has always maintained his innocence.
Aside from the fact that the subject matter is inherently riveting—we seemingly never tire of the “everything was perfect until . . .” narrative—the podcast has several things to recommend it.
First, the reporting is top notch. When people bemoan the decline of journalism, this is the kind of work they are lamenting the loss of. In an interview with Maryland Morning’s Sheila Kast last week, Koenig admits that the story has occupied her life for the better part of a year as she tries to piece together a fuller picture of events leading up Hae Min Lee’s disappearance.
The format of the show is also a novel twist on the investigative long-form piece. Each season of Serial will follow one story for however many episodes it takes to satisfyingly resolve the narrative. Not all future seasons will revolve around a true crime story, but the show’s format is a great fit for the genre as it allows the ambiguities that give the genre its chilling jolt room to breathe. For instance, Koenig candidly admits that she doesn’t know how the story will end as the reporting is still very much in progress. She further acknowledges that Adnan may have done it. But it seems just as possible that he didn’t. That ambiguity is pretty compelling.
And for us as Baltimoreans, the story obviously hits home. When narration mentions the Woodlawn Public Library adjacent to the high school’s campus, the nearby 7-11, or Leakin Park, we know these places not as abstractions, but as physical realities—places we have stood, buildings we have used. The first two episodes “The Alibi” and “The Breakup” laid out the characters and the crime, but the title of this week’s episode, “Leakin Park,” hints at a broadening of narrative scope.
We’ll be listening.