Serial and the CWCY

Sarah Koenig’s addictive Serial, which in its first season has explored the innocence claim of a man convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, has great relevance to the work that I do at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University School of Law. Recently, when people find out what I do, they immediately want to talk about this podcast, which has spent several weeks as the most downloaded series on iTunes, displacing its parent show, This American Life, and inspired countless blogs, Reddit posts, and even podcasts based on the podcast—the majority of which comment on the central figure’s guilt, or lack thereof, and speculate about what really happened. Serial has sparked an unprecedented amount of public discourse about the workings—or more often, the failings—of the American criminal justice system, the slippery nature of truth, the fallibility of memory, the racism endemic to our criminal justice system, and the pitfalls of narrative journalism. In doing so, Koenig has shined a light on issues that largely live in the shadows in our society.

Koenig is also a journalist though; part of her job is to tell an interesting story, to craft an intriguing narrative in order to reel in an audience. This often requires that the details of the drama, the characteristics and situation of the protagonist, and the egregious mistakes of the criminal justice system that sealed his fate appear to be unique, exceptional, an anomaly which justifies the storytelling. The unacceptable truth is that the story told in Serial is all too common in our society.

The CWCY represents and advocates on behalf of many people like Adnan Syed every year –juveniles who were convicted of horrible crimes they did not commit, as well as juveniles whose convictions are wrongful due to egregious violations of their rights, regardless of guilt or innocence. Whether or not you believe Adnan is innocent—and certainly reasonable minds may disagree on this question—most listeners should agree that his conviction is wrongful because our criminal justice system failed him in more ways than one. Cases like Adnan’s are tragically not exceptional.

In the final episode of Serial, Koenig confronted the question of whether Adnan’s case is “unremarkable.” A police practices expert, interviewed twice during the series, aptly concludes Adnan’s case is “a mess.” Koenig says that attorneys, police, and others with whom she has spoken all agree that the case is inordinately messy. And so do I – Adnan’s case is a tangle of shifting stories from witnesses (mostly teenage witnesses), half-truths or lies, unreliable evidence, and, ultimately, no cohesive story and no solid evidence to exculpate Adnan. But I strenuously disagree with the notion that the messiness of this case is remarkable. As Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s family friend and an attorney who first contacted Koenig about Adnan’s case commented, “it sounds like a crazy litany of ‘everything-that-could-go-wrong’ in a trial, except that all of these things did go wrong in Adnan’s case. And Adnan’s case is no outlier – for any and every wrongfully convicted person, you can assume almost everything went wrong.” Indeed, in my professional experience advocating for youth in our criminal justice system, criminal cases against kids and cases involving predominantly young witnesses are often the flimsiest, and the resulting convictions are often the most dubious.

It is not a fluke or conspiracy that so many children and teenagers are wrongfully convicted. Young people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than adults for reasons relating to their age and lack of maturity. Children and teenager’s brains are not fully developed, and that development is critically important to successfully negotiating interactions with police and navigating our criminal justice system. Children and teenagers are categorically more suggestible, compliant, and vulnerable to outside pressures and demands from authority, such as police interrogation, than adults. Children and teenagers are less able to consider long-term consequences and weigh risks, less likely to understand their legal rights, and less likely to understand how their attorneys can help them. Children and teenagers are three times more likely to falsely confess to a crime they did not commit than adults.  Research shows that it requires the intelligence and maturity of at least a 14-year-old to comprehend the Miranda rights police are required to give to people upon arrest, yet police did not alter or further explain these rights when they read them to kids under 14 years.

I hope that the popularity of Serial will translate to increased public awareness of the plight of youth who are wrongfully convicted. Sarah Koenig and the team behind the podcast have highlighted the inconsistencies, the biases, the failures of defense, and the plethora of human errors that factored Adnan’s conviction. It is critical that fans and listeners of Serial come away with the sense that Adnan’s story is not the exception to the rule, but an uncomfortably common miscarriage of justice in an imperfect system. The media in general, and in particular, Koenig’s crafted storytelling, have immeasurable power over how those lucky enough not to have had involvement in the criminal justice system view that system’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the greatest contributions Serial has made is a cogent, compelling counter-narrative to “crime” shows like the many Law & Order and CSI iterations. The popularity of Serial, and the passion Koenig and her team clearly feel for the injustice at its center, are hopeful indications that the American public is awake to the plight of those whom our justice system has failed. My hope is that listeners will continue to educate themselves on these issues, and take action to prevent situations like Adnan’s from happening to future generations of young people.

Megan Crane, Clinical Fellow*

*Huge thanks to CWCY Program Coordinator Hope Rehak for her many wonderful contributions to this post.

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