Who killed Hae Min Lee? On January 13, 1999, Lee, a high school student in Baltimore County, Maryland, was murdered sometime between 2:15 p.m. and 2:36 p.m. Over the past 15 years, accounts of what happened in those 21 minutes have grown more and more unclear. None of which stopped the courts from using one shaky testimony to convict her ex-boyfriend and fellow student, Adnan Syed, of the murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
What really happened is the question at the heart of Serial, a new documentary podcast series hosted by This American Life producer Sarah Koenig. Every Thursday, listeners learn more about Lee’s murder, which includes details from her diary, an overlooked alibi witness, and information about the convicted streaker who found her body. Listeners also hear Syed’s regular, affable voice on every episode, over the phone from jail. “I am asking people to recall stuff that happened 15 years ago,” Koenig says. “I’m asking people to tell me their feelings now about it, which are completely colored by the intervening 15 years. That’s how our memories work.”
How did Lee’s murder and Syed’s case end up becoming the focus for Serial‘s first “season”?
I learned about Adnan’s story well before we came up with the show. A friend of the Syed family, Rabia Chaudry, came to me because I had been at the Baltimore Sun and had written about this attorney who had been disbarred — the same lawyer who represented Adnan. The notion was that his defense had screwed up the case, and would I look into this? It wasn’t ‘Oh, I want to do a criminal justice story,’ or ‘I want to do a murder story.’ I was already working on this story as a possibility for This American Life, and had been talking about what kind of other project I could do. This was already underway and I knew these characters were compelling, so it won by default.
If I learn something that changes my view of things, I don’t want to have worry that, ‘oh no, i got it wrong in episode two.’
The show is structured in chapters, so that more details about the cases are revealed with each episode. What do you have planned for the way you want it to come together in the end?
I hope that people who are listening will feel like they’re learning the particulars of the case in the same manner that I am learning them, so that by the end, it feels like we have all kind of drawn a conclusion together. It’s like you had come along with me on that ride. But I don’t have a particular ending in mind, like: “Well, I hope we bust him out of jail,” or “I hope we keep him locked up forever.” It’s not even so much that I have a legal verdict in mind; it’s more like how I would want to feel after reading a book. The sensation of thinking, “Wow, I got deep inside this thing, and I learned everything I could about it” — there’s a satisfaction to that.
You mentioned how your goal wasn’t to get him out of jail, but your reporting could be used in his appeal. Does that affect your approach as the show continues?
I don’t think that affects my approach. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily true — that something that I report could somehow be introduced. I mean, if we found some incredible piece of evidence that has never been uncovered, which is possible, then I suppose that someone could file a petition in court. But I’m not sure that what I’m doing would translate into some sort of legal remedy for Adnan. And even if it did, I don’t worry about that anyway. The only thing I really, really worry about is: Am I being fair at every step of the way? Because I’m still reporting it as it’s unfolding, there is a different kind of pressure. If I learn something three weeks from now that really changes my view of things, I don’t want to have to worry that, “Oh, no, I got it wrong in episode two.”
How do you balance that need to report the facts you find with your commitment to tell the stories of all these people involved?
I have found that I really like a lot of these people on both sides — even the ones who may have done terrible things. So, if I’m enjoying talking to them, then that’s going to come through in the reporting, naturally. That’s the pleasure of radio: You get to hear these people and decide whether you like them as well. So, it’s not that I’m having to make an effort to portray an interest. I think it’s OK to like them. And it’s OK to dislike them, and sometimes that comes through. There was a group of kids who knew about this who didn’t go to the cops right away, and it’s easy to be judgmental about that, especially as an adult. I went in thinking, “Ah, these kids. They’ve got no morals. What is this?”