There is still time to jump on the Serial bandwagon. This new podcast chronicles the mysterious death of Hae Min Lee, a beautiful and popular teenage girl whose story has captured the world.
Hae Min Lee’s dead body was found in Baltimore, Maryland in late 1999, strangled and battered. Six weeks after her body was located, the police arrested and convicted her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed for her murder. Adnan, more than fifteen years later and serving out a life sentence, still stands by his innocence. His story is riddled with an overwhelming number of inconsistencies starting with the police investigation, evidence, witnesses, and even Adnan’s legal representation. This story is being told through a podcast that has been downloaded worldwide. Over the course of 12 episodes, Sarah Koenig tells Adnan’s story by meticulously retracing his steps, locating cell phone towers to debunk alibis, and interviewing witnesses to get to the truth.
Saying the media attention has been overwhelming would be a gigantic understatement. To date, Serial has been downloaded well over 40 million times. iTunes says that Serial is the top podcast in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia, and in the top 10 in Germany, South Africa and India. I, like the rest of the world, have been sucked into this amazing story. I cannot remember a podcast, or any other medium, where I actually looked forward to the next day just so I could listen to another episode. There was something very intimate about listening to a story unfold through audio week-by-week.
Listening to the story told by Sarah, I cannot help but believe that Adnan is innocent. The inconsistencies with the witness statements and lack of evidence alone make me want to believe Adnan. Moreover, Adnan just doesn’t seem like a killer. Yes, I know, as a lawyer I should be a skeptic and I am. However, this is not my legal case and I am not the jury—I am an Adnan fanboy who wants to believe that he is innocent. #TeamAdnan.
[dropcap] …BUT [/dropcap]
I am also a lawyer and I am worried that Adnan will be released for all the wrong reasons. As I explained above the media attention has been tremendous. To date here are the numbers:
- Fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads-EVER
- Serial has been downloaded over 40 million times!
- 39 million Americans have listened to the podcast just this last month
This cultural phenomenon has gathered a following unlike any other podcast in the history of podcasts. Even compared to most TV shows it would be a struggle to find any other fanbase as passionate as the one fighting for or against Adnan’s freedom.
Herein lies the problem. This non-fiction, real-time ‘story’ brings about a really important legal problem—Can justice be persuaded by media attention? Can the pressure of social media, popularity, ‘viralness’ and a cult-like following sway the hands of lady justice?
[dropcap] …YES [/dropcap]The answer is most definitely YES in Baltimore, Maryland. The judges in Maryland are elected.
Adnan Syed, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be in front of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in January. Justice will always be influenced by outside pressure in states that elect judges by popular election. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner described the problem elegantly:
“If judges are subject to regular and competitive elections, they cannot help being aware that if the public is not satisfied with the outcome of a particular case, it could hurt their re-election prospects. As the late California Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus described it, ignoring the electoral pressure would be ‘like ignoring a crocodile in your bathtub.’”
It is imperative that judges make decisions that are impartial. Cases should be decided by the facts of law and not be influenced by media pressure. The judges in Maryland cannot help but wonder what will happen if they rule against the majority of the Adnan supporters. The statistics associated with elected judges are mind-boggling. For example, a study in Pennsylvania by Gregory A. Huber and Sanford C. Gordon found that as re-election nears judges increase their sentences “resulting in some 2,700 years of additional prison time, or 6% of total prison time, in aggravated assault, rape, and robbery sentences over a 10-year period.”
These numbers should scare you! Judges must be fair, impartial, and unprejudiced when making their decisions. In the case of Adnan, his appeal should be made on the merits of the case and not the cultural support he is receiving from being a podcast hero.
There is a better way. Missouri has a merit-selection system, which helps keep political and media influence away from the courtroom. The Governor of the state, who is elected by the people, nominates the state candidate to fulfill a state judgeship vacancy. When nominating, the governor is assisted by an administrative body, which includes lawyers who are members of the state bar. See, while the governor can be subject to media influence, the nominated state judge is not! This ensures that media propaganda will not unduly influence a judge from making a decision.
While I’m rooting for Adnan, I want his case to be decided on the merits and not the media uproar. Our justice system is based on fairness, impartiality, and liberty. Though Serial is an incredible story, it is one in which the protagonist is real and is living in a Western Maryland state prison, convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. We must keep our courts free of bias and undue influence to maintain freedom and justice.
Robert Kinsman is a personal injury, mass tort, business litigation, and employment discrimination attorney who practices in Kansas City, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law and has been practicing law for several years now. Robert Kinsman is passionate about normalizing the life of his clients after they have been seriously injured. Learn more about his experience here.