Serial Episode 10: Did Racism Help Put Adnan in Prison?

Four Atlantic staffers discuss the podcast's newest installment, which appraises the cracks in the 1999 defense of Adnan Syed.

Conor Friedersdorf, Lenika Cruz, Tanya Basu, and Katie Kilkenny discuss the latest episode of WBEZ Chicago's popular non-fiction podcast Serial.

Friedersdorf: Episode 10 of Serial begins by addressing the question of anti-Muslim prejudice. Did it play a role in putting Adnan in prison? Adnan's mother declares that when she explains to herself what happened, discrimination against Muslims is the only rationale she can come up with. She believes her son is innocent, that anti-Muslim prejudice is the reason he was arrested, and that everyone in the local Muslim community feels the same way. "Because it was a Muslim child, that's why they took him," she said. "It was easier to take him than other people."

Sarah Koenig is skeptical of anti-Muslim bigotry as The One Cause, presumably because there were definitely other factors that played a significant role. When a teenage woman dies, of course the ex-boyfriend is at least a person of interest. When another person, with no apparent motive to lie, flat-out accuses the ex-boyfriend of the murder, of course he is a suspect. When the ex has no alibi, of course that makes it even worse. And was it really easier for police to take Adnan, an honor student and part-time EMT voted most popular at school dances, than Jay, a black drug dealer with piercings and tattoos? I can't perform a rigorous analysis of the competing kinds of racism at play, but it's at least unclear.

At the same time, Koenig presents evidence that anti-Muslim prejudice played a definite role at different points in Adnan's case, from jury selection, when one potential juror confessed that he couldn't be fair to a Muslim defendant because a Muslim friend of his mistreats his wife, to a bail hearing when a prosecutor keeps referring to Adnan as a Pakistani (instead of American) and fabricates a pattern of cases where Pakistanis kill women and flee back to their home country. In previous episodes, we've also heard how stereotypes about Muslims tinged the prosecution's account of Adnan's motives. Whether or not Adnan is guilty, it's difficult to come away from this deep dive into his case without concluding that he would've gotten a fairer trial in ways big and small if he had not been a Muslim. And that's true even though his trial began before the September 11 terrorist attacks, which caused anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes to spike in the United States.

The rest of episode 10 focuses on Adnan's defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, and whether she bungled the trial in order to set herself up to make money on the appeal. Parts of her strategy are second-guessed, and there's a long bit near the end where we learn about her strange behavior late in her career: asking clients for large cash payments that never made their way to the legal experts that they were supposed to bankroll, for example. But the tape that struck me most powerfully was just Gutierrez in the courtroom, cross-examining Jay. She's hard to follow, and more than that, she's just not likable. As a podcast fan, perhaps I'm accustomed to hearing voices that are particularly pleasant. I've happily listened to Koenig for hours. Even short clips of Gutierrez are grating, and while clips designed to convey this quality were chosen, I am nevertheless convinced that I'd hate to sit through an hours long trial listening to her. I know it as surely as I know that I'd hate to spend hours listening to Gilbert Gottfried.

Something like that shouldn't matter in a trial deciding a man's fate. But that doesn't mean that it didn't.

Basu: For me, the first part of the episode that Conor mentions is at least thought provoking: What role, if any, did race play in Adnan’s trial?

The pre-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment is introduced by Shamim Rahman, Adnan Syed's mother, who thinks racial bias played a role in her son's conviction. At first, Koenig isn't so sure, perhaps naively so, wondering if Shamim is simply being a protective mother, blindly accusing those who put her son in jail. But Koenig's subsequent exploration of this potential bias in the case (though perhaps late for only being introduced in episode 10 and possibly in response to the spate of white-reporter-privilege stories flooding Internet commentary regarding the series) is thorough; "parsimonious," perhaps, but necessary and eye-opening.

In particular, the fact that honor killings are brought up as a potential motive for Adnan entails a not-so-subtle vein of a xenophobic stereotype that is in some ways shocking and yet also (sadly) expected. Honor killings, briefly, are murders of women who have somehow hurt their families’ reputations. Here, the prosecution implies that Adnan killed Hae to protect his own honor in the face of Islam and his family's disapproval of his relationship with a woman outside the faith and Pakistani culture.

Killing an ex-girlfriend over a lover’s squabble gone too far is a timeless narrative, but what sparked my interest here was the fact that the universality of this type of crime was lost on many observers. Here stood before the jury a man whose skin, name (at one point, an observer online off-handedly remarks about Hae's choice of boyfriend, "But who lets their daughter date someone named Adnan Masud Syed?"), and cultural heritage apparently beg for an alternate explanation. The motive couldn't be one of jealousy or rage, but had to do with "honor" that was "besmirched," hearkening to another dimension and world where a girlfriend was property. It made me wonder: What if Adnan was white, or, as Conor wonders, if he was black and tattooed and dealing drugs? Regardless of if he was black or white, it’s unlikely the idea that this was an honor killing would have even crossed anyone's mind. Would the case have been reduced to simply one of blinding fury? Would the jury be swayed either way? Would Adnan, most importantly, have a culture to "blame" for his actions? Culture, in other words, or at least perceived culture, are looming motives in cases, and we are left to wonder if Adnan's cultural background has anything at all to contribute to this murder.

But any Serial listener will recall that Adnan is tirelessly described as anything but "traditional." He's repeatedly seen as a lady's man who makes out and has sex with girls regardless of race, a fun-loving pothead who does things that "normal" (or "American") teenagers would do. In other words, Adnan was in his day-to-day life an average American teenager first, and a Pakistani Muslim second (as Conor mentions in his overview above). And yet, the fact that his community arrives en masse—"bearded" and "in traditional garb"—doesn't show that he has a loving family and support system members who believes his story. They’re instead his “aiders and abetters,” his escape route to Pakistan, part of the implied barbaric culture that has been ingrained in Adnan from his youth.

That Cristina Gutierrez must explain where Pakistan is, what an immigrant is, and how Adnan fits into that picture (he doesn't) shows how much progress has yet to be made to reduce racial stereotyping within the American criminal justice system. In the past couple weeks alone, the issue of police discrimination has erupted within the literal and figurative black and white parameters of the Michael Brown/Eric Garner cases. Koenig reveals a disturbing trend in how the criminal justice system treats minorities that worked circa-1999 and that continues to operate today: Make wide-reaching generalizations and blame the culture, however far-fetched it may be. Adnan Masud Syed is a Pakistani whose actions are not those of free will or individual choice but those dictated by a culture and faith whose very foreignness creates a chasm in morality.

Kilkenny: “Did she blow it?”

That’s the question Koenig asks at the start of her analysis of Cristina Gutierrez’s defense in this week’s episode, and it’s a loaded question. Over the course of Serial, Koenig has journeyed from curious outsider, to unlikely judge, to Adnan’s single greatest advocate. She’s still skeptical, of course, as she works through all the potential scenarios of Hae’s murder. But by giving Adnan the chance to tell his side of the story—which he was urged not to in trial—pursuing all the angles that might build a better case (like those cell phone records) and, of course, lingering on Aisha, she’s been working to correct the wrongs of the defense. She’s been doing Gutierrez’s job, better this time.

She knows it, too, and in past episodes Koenig hasn’t pulled the punches. Gutierrez has come off as a shrill straw man, a pugnacious lawyer who didn’t convince anyone by attacking Jay or spending way too long on the minute details of the Baltimore city streets. I suspect, though, this has to do with the fact that we’re hearing her: Gutierrez doesn’t have Koenig’s even-toned, mellifluous voice that makes listening to Serial such a pleasure every Thursday. Gutierrez is all lilting tones and fiery tirades, none of which is particularly pleasant to hear, and it hasn’t made her my friend so far on the podcast (though I imagine it would make for dynamo television).

As Conor noted, it does not make her particularly likable, and shallow as that appraisal is, the humanistic details add up when you’re trying to convince an inexpert jury, whose personal opinion of the woman may or may not have sabotaged the case—so many years later, it’s hard to know. But here Koenig gives Gutierrez, her case, and her piercing voice a second chance with another jury—the listeners of Serial—just as the last two episodes have done with Jay and Adnan before her.

Until now Gutierrez had been a character; in this week’s episode, though, she became a human. I have to give Koenig major props for this: It would be only too easy for the reporter revealing all the holes in the defense to continue villainizing Gutierrez, who’s an easy target given her history of being disbarred—check out the article Koenig wrote about it herself in The Baltimore Sun—and who’s not even alive to defend herself.

But in “The Best Defense Is a Good Defense” we learn the nuances. Gutierrez bought Adnan his skin medication. She was one of the first trial lawyers in Maryland to use DNA and Luminol, the science of which she practiced explaining on elementary-schoolers. She was called a “pitbull on the pantleg of justice,” for heaven’s sake. She was amazing.

She was also totally flawed, and though Sarah says here she doesn’t think Gutierrez threw the case, given the new evidence, I’m not convinced. Gutierrez was clearly strapped for cash and suffering from serious illness. Asking for $10,000 in cash from for a jury expert then not hiring said expert is not cool. It’s desperate, and it makes the second trial all the more shady.

But, overall, the point isn’t so much to speculate about her motivations, because it’s clear from the tapes she went in guns blazing, being “exhaustive and exhausting” as Sarah put it, and even if that fire lapsed in the second trial compared to the first, it’s all over now. There was more to learn this episode about the role that chance (or luck) plays in a trial’s success. More disturbing than the fact that Gutierrez was continuing to work when her effectiveness was clearly waning, is the realization that in one trial a jury might be on the cusp of acquitting Adnan, and in the second they could be so turned against him. That in one instance the lawyer’s antics seem to work, and in another they’re so ineffective. And of course, what’s left unsaid: That Koenig might choose to revive this case when there are so many others out there, maybe even known to the very jury members who judged this one.

Cruz: Conor, Tanya, Katie—since you all focused on the content of the episode itself, I’m going to zoom out a little bit. We’re on episode 10, which translates to one complete season of Game of Thrones and True Detective, or three seasons of Black Mirror. But because the episodes vary in length, I’ll be more precise: we’ve listened to about seven hours of Serial minus maybe two minutes for MailChimp. Even if we as listeners abandon the expectation of a conventional ending, the fact remains that other narrative challenges arise from the podcast’s open-ended, nonlinear structure, not just for Koenig.

In a past episode, we heard Koenig question some of Gutierrez’s other courtroom patterns and speculate about the effects they had on the jury. At one point she describes how Gutierrez essentially bombarded jurors with tedious details about the Baltimore streets; in episode 10, we hear something similar, when Gutierrez offers the court an encyclopedic briefing on Pakistani geography and culture. Despite the defense lawyer’s attention-grabbing “singsong aggression” courtroom style, this kind of presentation has an eye-glaze-y quality to it. Processing hours of sheer data in large chunks, day after day, isn’t easy.

And so despite Koenig’s superior storytelling abilities and far more dulcet voice, I’ve found myself feeling a bit like a juror. Seven hours of transcripts, testimony, technology descriptions, annotations, route-tracing, and dozens of voices later, I sometimes feel like there’s a lot of talking and not a lot being said, as one juror put it in this very episode.

This is of course untrue: A lot is being said, and Adnan’s is an interesting case. But it can be difficult to hold all the different threads and minute details in my mind, especially week after week, and remember how I feel about each person or piece of information. How do I feel about Jay? How do I feel about Adnan? About the prosecution and police’s handling of the case? About that payphone at Best Buy? About Mr. S? About Koenig herself? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Serial isn’t striving for its audience to come to a single conclusion. Hell, nobody even knows when the season will end or what new information each new episode will bring.

None of this is to criticize Serial; it’s inevitable that unusual consequences will come from consuming an unusual work. Serial is traditional reporting, television show, true crime, radio, anthology, a little Gonzo, and an entertaining reflection on epistemological questions. Whether this story goes on for one more episode or 20, I’ll be there listening, secretly hoping Koenig ties together all the messy strings into one “big, unassailable bow.”