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Trends in true crime (jeez, this got long)

I listened to Serial Season 1, and like a lot of people, came away undecided but intrigued. Because I have a lot of lab and statistical gruntwork to do that doesn’t require 100% focus, I tend to burn through a lot of podcasts, so I downloaded and listened to Undisclosed, which is a followup and deeper dig into the Syed case post-Serial.

Now I’ve come away with a firm opinion. The State has the wrong theory of the case, we still have no idea what really happened to Hae Min Lee, and the State convicted the wrong person for being the criminal in a scenario they concocted from bias. And in doing this, the State has let slide whoever did commit the crime.

I admit that I put a lot of stock into forensic evidence in general, and that the physical evidence experts consulted in Undisclosed were very convincing to me - but who know what they’d say under cross-examination, of course. However, I can say that for the time being, I believe them. The pathologist in particular demonstrated based on lividity evidence that there was no way for Hae Min Lee’s body to have been in the boot of her car as described by Jay, and she also convinced me that Sarah Koenig’s timeline test SHOULD have ruled out Adnan Syed based on the time it takes to strangle a human being. Other findings, such as what happened to Hae Lee’s car and where it was moved between her disappearance and the discovery of her body, also call the State’s case into question. So I think we don’t even need to ask whether Adnan Syed was “the type” or if he had motive or if Jay was lying for profit or do any kind of character weighing the way most of the Internet did after Serial - I think the physical evidence just stands up and says that the crime in its entirety happened differently to what Syed was convicted for.


So that brings me to the trend, of late, in true crime, of finding and exposing total trainwrecks in certain investigations. Take Amanda Knox. THAT was a giant mess, and her conviction was similarly unsupported by physical evidence. It was also seemingly shaped and driven by ideas that law enforcement had about her character, much like Adnan Syed’s was. Now I keep seeing headlines this week about Adnan Syed now that he’s getting a post-conviction relief hearing, including some about Hae Lee’s family saying how he “ruined their lives” and how hard it is to hear that people want him released. It’s giving me shades of the Kercher family in the UK with all the Amanda Knox stuff. They’ve always maintained that she is guilty, at least publicly.

And that takes me to a couple of places - one where I’m thinking, but guys, these people aren’t the ones who killed your daughters or sisters or loved ones! You SHOULD want them released! But that’s not a sympathetic thought to think. That assumes that people think about terrible crimes happening to their relatives in a cold and rational way, and listen to the same podcasts I do, and place the same value in scientific expert witnesses that I do. That’s PATENTLY ABSURD that I would think that, so then I have to stop thinking it. And that takes me to the second place. What these families are feeling? It’s incredibly awful, and blame for their loss belongs 100% with whoever killed their loved ones. But their next level of feelings - anger towards the wrongfully convicted - that’s incredibly awful as well that they have to feel that, and blame for THAT belongs to shitty faux-investigative practices, whether those practices stem from racism (Adnan Syed), misogyny (Amanda Knox), or just a generally crappy system (underfunded overworked statistics-driven investigation). It really makes me mad that these people are being victimized twice, once by their loved one’s killer, and once by the system. Maybe even a third time by the system, since even if they are having doubts, I doubt that the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement liaisons would be particularly pleased with families speaking publicly about disagreeing with a conviction. Families deserve so much better than their getting.

Anyway, I hope the air of scrutiny around law enforcement in this day and age leads to improvement. I realize that Syed and Knox are kind of capturing international attention in a way that many people victimized by The System cannot, probably because they’re both middle class and had that mystical air of “promising young person going places” before their convictions. I don’t want the trend in media attention to stay only on these sorts of sexy crimes and appealing middle-class people. I want this level of scrutiny in mainstream press and amateur podcasts to continue on into police shootings of unarmed black victims and racist false convictions amongst people who don’t have the same means as the Knox family. I hope the likes of Serial and Undisclosed lead to investigative improvement and better oversight for everybody.

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