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‘Serial’ and Ferguson crowdsourced the hunt for justice—and changed America forever

This is what happens when the media and the justice system collide.


Marisa Kabas

Internet Culture

Serial, the podcast that’s taken the world by storm, has gone from an intriguing story told week by week to a potential legal game-changer. We found out this week that seemingly thanks to Serial creator Sarah Koenig’s exhaustive efforts, Adnan Syed, whose conviction in 2000 of the murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee fuels the podcast, is having his case re-examined. But what does this mean for the future of justice in the digital age?

Last week, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch stood in front of a television camera for over 40 minutes to deliver the results of the Ferguson grand jury investigation into the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. There was a litany of things that stood out from his McCulloch’s rambling address, informing the nation that Officer Wilson’s case would not be brought to trial, but particularly notable was the number of times in which he called out the role of the media in this months-long ordeal.

McCulloch said: “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and the sensational appetite for something to talk about. Following closely behind with the rumors on social media.”

It was a weird moment for us media folk. On the one hand, we balked at this high-powered prosecutor’s suggestion that lowly writers, editors and miscellaneous members of the online peanut gallery could have any real influence on the country’s judicial system.

But in that same moment, we perhaps felt a bit of power. Is the stuff we’re throwing out into the void actually becoming a substantive part of the conversation? Are there people in power suits behind closed doors pointing to online missives and realizing they have to take this stuff seriously? It’s hard to fathom.

In the end, the media’s overarching opinion—that Darren Wilson needlessly murdered Michael Brown—was not the same as the grand jury’s. It found that Wilson acted appropriately in the moment, based on the evidence and eyewitness testimony presented to the jury members.

McCulloch explained in his public address that there are times when using deadly force is authorized, “as a caution to those in and out of the media who will pounce on a single sentence or witness and decide what should have happened in this case based on that tiny bit of information.”

But why, then, did McCulloch feel so threatened by the media? Why did he make a point of calling them out when he had just, presumably, gotten what he wanted?

The answer is that despite the irresponsible, shameless, and ruthless picture he painted of them, many members of the 24-hour news cycle and the Twitterati are actually very good at what they do. They pick and prod and observe and take notes, much like detectives, just without the badge and gun. And the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has been bitch-slapped with that inconvenient truth in the form of Sarah Koenig’s relentless sleuthing.

We often talk about the court of public opinion, by which the public makes a theoretical ruling in a case based on the evidence presented via the media. So what happens when the court of public opinion crosses into the actual court of law?

In Serial, Koenig contends that Syed’s original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to bring forth key evidence (such as an alibi for the time of the murder) in an effort to exonerate her young client. But despite the many holes that Koenig artfully pokes in this decade and a half old story, her original expectation was not to resuscitate this cold case because there was simply no precedent for it. That probably explains why Syed’s attorney for the past five years, C. Justin Brown, was so surprised when suddenly the case found new life this past September.

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that Syed’s case is moving through the appeals process.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals asked prosecutors to respond to the post-conviction appeal in September to see if they too believed Syed had ineffective counsel in a move Brown said is highly unusual. Ultimately, as millions of listeners try and parse the evidence for themselves, what happens next is up to the judges.

‘It’s an unusual phenomenon,’ Brown said. ‘The Court of Special Appeals has shown some interest in the case and asked the state to respond to our application, which is more than they usually do in this procedural posture. But I truly think the appellate courts make their decisions based on the merits of the case, and not the popularity of a podcast.’

Of course it’s up to the court. But what Brown isn’t recognizing is that this podcast (which I imagine he said with more than a hint of condescension), and its creators already helped craft a decision…a decision to take another look. Koenig, her producer Dana Chivvis, and the rest of the crew at This American Life have already done the work that Syed’s defense attorney should have done all those years ago, and have already shined a new lightperhaps the correct lighton the vast uncertainty surrounding this case. In a way, more justice has already been served. And when Syed has his day in court this January, he’ll likely do so with a new-found confidence.

When Koenig reached out to the case detectives Bill Ritz and Greg MacGillivary to discuss the particulars of what really happened, Koenig reports that Ritz said, “He didn’t see the point. The case has been adjudicated. What good would it do?” And though MacGillivary was a bit more communicative, their conversation boiled down to the same point: “Beyond question he did it,” he told Koenig.

Yet many questions powerfully linger, which means this case is not beyond question. The public wants answers, Adnan Syed wants answers, and these answers are being pursued, not by a member of the criminal justice system, but by a curious member of the media. 

Photo via toridawnrector/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

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