Murdered Adnan Syed Hae Min Lee

Podcast "Serial": A murder case is reopened on the Internet

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Woodlawn County is a typical American suburb outside of Baltimore. There is a high school, two malls, and those who want to smoke pot will likely find their weed around Edmondson Avenue. At the east end, Interstate 70 ends at the entrance to Leakin Park. The place where the body of the missing 17-year-old Hae Min Lee was found in February 1999.

The reason sleepy Woodlawn is suddenly a place of international interest is called Serial. An English-language podcast currently at the top of the iTunes charts in the USA, Great Britain and Australia. Week after week, journalist and radio host Sarah Koenig investigates the murder of Hae Min Lee. Six of the twelve planned episodes have already appeared. The name is program: Serial is a podcast that wants to be heard from the start and, like a good crime series, pulls the audience under its spell. With one difference: Serial is not fiction.

A cold day in January

A year ago, Koenig came across as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun has worked and has been the producer of the award-winning radio program for ten years This American Life is, coincidentally, on the case. The more she deals with it, the more inconsistencies she sees in the official story.

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It works like this: On January 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee disappears after school. A month later, a craftsman discovered her body in Leakin Park. The main suspect is her ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old Adnan Syed, who does not have an alibi for the time of the crime. Instead, Adnan's buddy Jay turns himself in to the police: Adnan told him he killed Hae. He then helped Adnan bury the body. Why did he do that and not report to the police right away? Because he was afraid that his business as a drug dealer would be exposed, Jay says in court.

For the investigators, the matter is clear at the latest with Jay's statement: Adnan strangled his ex-girlfriend out of lovesickness and jealousy. He is sentenced to life imprisonment, Jay gets away with a suspended sentence as a helper after the crime. Today Adnan is 32 years old and has spent almost half of his life in prison. He still denies his guilt.

Murder case with loopholes

Serial reopen the case. Koenig is gradually reconstructing the day in January 1999. She publishes telephone conversations that she had with Adnan, his classmates and witnesses from back then. It shows recordings from the trial and interrogation by the police and collects cell phone data that document Adnan's movements on the day of the crime. On the website, the listeners get additional information in the form of maps and timelines.

After the first few episodes, it looks like Adnan is actually innocent and Serial on the trail of a judicial scandal. Because the more details the project reveals, the more opaque the case becomes: Jay's testimony has large gaps, the case prepared by the public prosecutor's office is problematic, and a classmate who tried to provide Adnan with a possible alibi was never called to the stand. But for every piece of evidence that speaks for Adnan's innocence, another emerges that incriminates him. At one point Koenig says: "The story may contain inconsistencies and lies. But it could still be essentially true." It is these contradictions that do Serial make it so successful.

The reactions show how successful. "The great podcast renaissance" writes that New York Magazine. "The podcast we've been waiting for," says the new Yorker. The BBC has over Serialreported, and the Guardiancalls the project a "new genre of audio storytelling". For media journalist David Carr from the New York Times it is an "impressive insight into both a murder case and a report."

So much praise. Too much maybe "We're not breaking new ground with the format," says executive producer Julie Snyder in an interview with Nieman storyboard, "There have already been similar projects on television." Koenig adds: "Success doesn't lie in our idea or the way we tell the story. People just can't resist a mysterious murder case."

That may be true and yet it is deeply stacked. Part of the crossover potential of Serial certainly lies in the script-ready crime story. But it can also be explained with its unusual approach and implementation.