True crime makes us believe we are certain about people like Adnan Syed. We should be ashamed

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I know for certain whether Adnan Syed was guilty. Syed, who has just had his conviction overturned after serving almost 23 years for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, once said that only he and her murderer could be 100% certain whether Syed was innocent – but nope, sorry, I know. I’ve listened to Serial – the 2014 podcast that popularised Syed’s case – twice. I’ve spent countless hours on Reddit forums dedicated to everything the podcast missed. I’ve spotted telling remarks made in telling tones. I have read the doodled diary extracts of a strangled teenage girl. I know whether Syed is a murderer. Get rid of judges, juries and executioners: replace them with me.

I’m being facetious, obviously – there’s a reason I haven’t told you whether I’m so sure of Syed’s innocence or of his guilt. This is because I know, logically, that the certainty that surges in my chest is no such thing at all. Obviously I don’t know whether Syed committed murder more than two decades ago; obviously I don’t know whether he was framed by corrupt detectives at the Baltimore Police Department. I am just one of 340 million listeners, and about as geographically and temporally removed from the case as it’s possible to be. But still, I am certain – and I’m troubled by that, and troubled by other people’s certainty too.

True crime invites us to speculate, score points and take sides. I have watched the internet divide itself into “guilters” and “innocenters” who gleefully call each other deluded and celebrate like sports fans when a new piece of evidence benefits their “team”. Huge swaths of people spend their days cosplaying as detectives, digging into strangers’ lives, reading their diaries, even driving past their houses. And so many of them – like me – are so, so certain that they’ve got it right. So many of them are unwilling to admit that they actually know very little at all.

Syed’s conviction was vacated on 19 September because the state failed to share exculpatory evidence about two potential suspects that could have helped his defence at trial (this is known as a Brady violation). Syed has been placed on home detention. The 41-year-old was not released from prison because he has been found innocent – rather, investigators are awaiting the results of DNA analysis before deciding whether to seek a new trial. What has been proved, however, is that Syed’s conviction was wrongful and his rights were violated – the state was “morally compelled to take affirmative action”, as it had “lost confidence in the integrity of the conviction”.

Whether or not there is another trial, it is possible that there will never be a smoking (or smokeless) gun in this case. The identity of the killer may be one of those things that the wider world can never know for certain – Serial host Sarah Koenig recently told the New York Times that, “there was no way” for the show’s producers “to say definitively what happened”. Instead, Koenig said: “What we were pointing out in our story was that the timeline of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems …

Related: From Serial to In the Dark: the true crime podcasts that changed their subjects’ lives

“This kid goes to prison for life at 18, based on a story that wasn’t accurate. That’s what we wanted people to think about: even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?”

Of course, no one wants to “set aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence” – no one ever has. When Serial first aired, some listeners were disappointed that the final episode didn’t feature a shocking, spine-tingling revelation that could put the case to bed. Instead, it was a story about the failures and flaws of the US justice system – booo-ring! For many, it was far more fun to don a deerstalker and spend the next eight years becoming so, so certain about whether Syed did or didn’t do it.

Frankly, we should all be ashamed. This isn’t a game – the people we are talking about aren’t characters on TV. Addressing the court before Syed’s conviction was overturned, Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said: “This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life that will never end. It’s been 20-plus years. It’s a nightmare.”

Serial paved the way for countless true crime podcasts and documentaries, and while Koenig stopped short of declaring whodunnit, other producers have been less scrupulous. I remember a sickening feeling creeping over me when I listened to a podcast on a friend’s recommendation shortly after finishing Serial. The host authoritatively declared in the final episode that the person at the heart of the case had indeed committed the crime – they made a big, grand show about a moment they sensed they were speaking to a murderer. But we can’t sense anything. Our hunches are just hunches. As ProPublica reporter Pamela Colloff has pointed out: these are the same biases that lead to wrongful convictions in the first place.

Can true crime thrive without inviting viewers to speculate? Probably not. The genre invites us to be entitled – it welcomes us with warm arms to the worst moments of other people’s lives. But as viewers and listeners, we must resist certainty – we must resist black and white thinking and confident declarations of innocence and guilt. We should accept that we are just spectators; that we know very little at all. If we don’t – if we continue to belittle each other, stalk strangers and leave arrogant comments about our instincts – then we must accept that the only guilt that we can be certain of is our own.

  • Amelia Tait is a freelance features writer

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