Can true crime podcasts right the wrongs of the criminal justice system?

There’s a moment in the fifth episode of the hit NPR “Serial” podcast in which host Sarah Koenig, who followed the route that 18-year-old Hae Min Lee allegedly took on the day of her murder, arrives at the Baltimore Best Buy where Ms Lee was allegedly killed by her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Ms. Koenig is trying to assess whether Mr. Syed could have killed Ms. Lee in the very short amount of time that corresponds to the coroner’s report. “Manual throttling takes a few minutes,” says Ms. Koenig, as simply as if explaining a peculiarity of wheat cultivation.

She and her producer Dana Chivvis head to the phone booth around the corner where Mr Syed was allegedly seen by his friend Jay, who will tell police that Mr Syed then showed him Ms Lee’s body in the trunk of his car. And Ms. Koenig stops to share a strange discovery: there is no evidence that there was ever a payphone there. Ms. Koenig exhausts every possible angle to establish her existence — she talks to Best Buy employees, to the owner, to the Maryland Public Service Commission, to Verizon; she checks the store’s original blueprints, a photo of the store taken a few years after Mrs. Lee’s murder. Nothing.

As for the systemic issues these true crime shows face, do they actually make a difference?

The moment captures what made this first season of “Serial” an international sensation. As he sifted through the evidence in the case against Mr Syed and pursued every lead, he uncovered mysteries in the most unlikely places. Were they significant? It was often impossible to tell. And as the podcast progressed, it became more and more about the ambiguity of it all, the fog that no amount of effort could seem to dispel. “I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders,” Ms. Koenig tells us in the finale. “Don’t tell me Adnan is a nice guy. Don’t tell me Jay was scared. Don’t tell me who made a five-second call. Just tell me the facts, lady.

On Monday, some eight years after the podcast aired, the fog lifted, at least a little. Syed was released from prison and his conviction for Ms. Lee’s death in 1999 was overturned by the state’s attorney. Surprisingly, “Serial” seems to have little to do with the actual reason for its release. His lawyers have spent the past eight years trying unsuccessfully to get him a new trial. Then, in 2021, Maryland passed the Juvenile Restoration Act, which gave anyone who spent 20 or more years in prison after being convicted as a juvenile the opportunity to seek a reduced sentence. While investigating Mr. Syed’s motion, the state uncovered evidence that pointed to two other potential suspects in Ms. Lee’s murder, neither of whom had been shared with the defence. In her new episode on Syed’s release, Ms Koenig – who now does ‘Serial’ for the New York Times – tells us she knows who these suspects are, but is reluctant to identify them because none have yet been charged. whatever it is.

There is no doubt that the attention ‘Serial’ has brought to the case has helped Mr. Syed, although, over the course of the podcast, Koenig also asked important questions about his potential culpability. And the “Serial” team told an incredibly compelling story. Ms. Koenig’s writing has the sharpness and eye of Truman Capote and the soul of Mary Oliver. And on the air, she encounters the warmth and informality of a mother in the school carpool. She is centered in the story as a faithful guide and emotional stand-in, doing the things we would want, being frustrated, confused, or overwhelmed precisely when we do. It all feels like it’s happening effortlessly in real time, which of course belies the amount of craftsmanship (and editing) that goes on behind the scenes. Even though the series ended with no immediate results, the story had been told so well that it was hard not to feel like something had been accomplished.

In other words, our criminal justice system is a mess, and nothing seems to be being done about it.

But when it comes to the systemic issues that these true crime shows face, do the deep flaws in the criminal justice system they reveal really make a difference? “I don’t think we have good empirical evidence for their impact,” says John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University. The problem with such podcasts, he argues, is their subject matter. “They tend to focus on the most exceptional and therefore spectacular parts of the system, but because of this failures are often the rarest.” Homicides account for about one percent of all reported crimes, Dr. Pfaff points out. “They are the worst crime ever.” But these are not where the real problems of the criminal justice system lie.

Take misdemeanors, he suggests. “We think there is something in the order of 13 million crimes [cases per year]. And 70% of those cases will be dismissed in the end. Sounds like a good thing, the system is working. But these cases can take 6 or 7 months; and in the process, says Dr. Pfaff, “You’ll have an open file hanging over your head where you can’t get a job, it’s hard to get an apartment, it’s hard to get a ready.”

“Harms are invisible, moving behind the scenes,” says Dr. Pfaff. “But the cumulative damage that starts with the low-level routine stuff is much larger.”

Pfaff also points to the millions of people who are in prison, on parole or on probation, people “who are indeed guilty, given the scope and breadth of our criminal codes, but who probably shouldn’t be locked up. in the system. It’s a much harder story to tell than that of a wrongfully convicted person.

Mr Syed’s case “contains just about every chronic problem our system can spit out”.

The only podcast that Dr. Pfaff says managed to examine some of these deeper, pervasive issues is actually the third season of “Serial,” which saw Ms. Koenig and her team spend a year in theaters. hearing of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, following ordinary cases. “I think it did a great job,” says Dr. Pfaff. “You see a lot more the harshness of the criminal justice system and the damage that comes with it.”

But he also acknowledges that tracking crimes in county court alone might have been quite a tough sell for audiences: “If this had been the first season, would it have taken off? I am not sure.”

Ms Koenig ended her update episode by pointing out that Mr Syed’s case “contains just about every chronic problem our system can spit out”. Plus, everything about the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s motion to overturn his conviction was known in 1999.

“And so, even on a day when the government publicly acknowledges its own mistakes,” Ms. Koenig says, “it’s hard to rejoice in a triumph of fairness. Because we’ve built a system that takes over 20 years to self-correct. And that’s just the case.

In other words, our criminal justice system is a mess, and nothing seems to be being done about it. Even Mr. Syed’s case is not over yet; prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to retry him. And if they decide that he should no longer be prosecuted, what about Hae Min Lee’s family? Who Killed Hae Min Lee?

Yet, as Ms. Koenig concludes another carefully written report and the “Serial” theme music cranks up to take us out, it’s easy to think the story is now over.