Unless you were living on the moon this past fall, you heard about Serial, the podcast tour de force that everyone from your mom to the guy who rotates your tires could not stop talking about. Serial fans by and large became very invested in the case against Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee, and were left at the podcast’s conclusion with more questions than answers. Always more of an attempt to tell an engaging story than it was to give a detailed play-by-play, Serial made for riveting podcasting, but it was often frustratingly short on details. In its wake, a new podcast has emerged promising all the details you can handle (and probably a fair bit more). Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed, hosted by attorney Rabia Chaudry, seeks to tell us all much more about the case, but with one very important caveat: she fully believes Syed is innocent.
Undisclosed is neither a continuation of nor a rebuttal to Serial, and it makes no claim be either of those things. Chaudry, who you will undoubtedly remember from Serial, is a Syed family friend, and she states at the top of the very first episode that she is not exactly an impartial observer. Due to her her bias regarding this case, she attempts to provide objective analysis by including two other attorneys in her podcasting venture: Colin Miller, Associate Dean and Professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and Susan Simpson, an associate with the Volkov Law Group. It’s not entirely clear how adding two more lawyers to the podcast necessarily guarantees objectivity, but I suppose we’ll have to take Chaudry’s word for it that she will present all the evidence the team unearths – whether it helps Adnan’s case or not. Such faith feels a little unfounded though, especially since the podcast is funded by The Adnan Syed Trust, a legal defense fund established by friends and supporters of Syed.
What the podcast may lack in objectivity, it more than makes up for with information. Lots and lots of information. It is essentially an information dump. Chaudry and her team have gone back and analyzed existing evidence, as well as new evidence they have uncovered on their own. The trio primarily reexamines timelines, presenting each podcast episode as a moment-by-moment account of each major player’s day. Episode one is “Adnan’s Day”, episode two is “Hae’s Day” and (although it has not yet aired as of this publication), episode three promises to cover perhaps the most intriguing day of all: “Jay’s Day”.
For those with an obsessive interest in the case (as I do), there are some interesting tidbits amidst this new and reconsidered evidence. For instance, if we are to accept Chaudry and her team’s interpretation of events (and that’s a big if), it seems likely that Syed did indeed attend track practice the day Lee was killed – and that his coach remembers him being there. Other tantalizing claims include a secret diary Lee allegedly kept on a floppy disk, which may or may not have been found by police but was definitely never disclosed or entered into evidence. Additionally, Hae had a pager that was always with her, but was never recovered with her body or in her car. What happened to it, and more importantly, why didn’t Syed, nor his alleged accomplice Jay Wilds, ever mention it?
The problem with these (admittedly very interesting) new pieces of information, is that they are buried under mountains of dates, times, places and names that are enough to make my head spin. I had to listen to the first two episodes twice to even begin to feel as if I understood what was being presented. While Serial sometimes made me wish for more information and less time spent pondering, Undisclosed leaves me begging for a break from the data deluge long enough to figure out what exactly is going on. As I listened to the first two episodes, I realized what I’m really craving is some kind of Serial-Undisclosed hybrid. I want all the beautifully woven narrative of Serial, with the kind of micro-level detail of Undisclosed. The frustrating thing is that not only would such a podcast be impossible to produce, but also, when it comes to understanding what happened on January 13, 1999, it would not even help.
The problem with the case of “Who Killed Hae Min Lee?” is not how we talk about it. The problem, whether the case is presented artfully by Serial, or somewhat clumsily by Undisclosed, is that the closer you get to it, the less sense it makes. Somehow more information does not equal more understanding. One of the main reasons for this lack of clarity is that the entire case is based on the most dubious of all “evidence”: witness testimony. Witnesses are famously unreliable because human beings lie, forget, and mix things up. Undisclosed spends a lot of time rattling off countless timelines of the day of Lee’s murder, based on various accounts and police statements, and then acknowledges that the timelines pretty much all contradict each other. They can’t all be right, so some of the witnesses are either lying or incorrect. But which ones? In episode two, “Hae’s Day,” Colin Miller makes the comparison between this case and the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon, and it is perhaps the most astute and relevant point made in this entire podcast so far. In the film, a body is found in the woods and four different witnesses give four different accounts of the victim’s movements prior to his death. The so-called “Rashomon effect” basically states that with any crime, you’re going to have as many stories as you have witnesses. Without physical evidence to corroborate one story over another, whom do you believe?
In all the hubbub surrounding this case, it’s definitive justice for the victim and her family that will provide the most satisfying end to this perplexing story. However, the only hope for such an outcome does not lie in further analysis of the unreliable information we already have. The only hope we have for knowing once and for all who the killer is lies in the hair and skin evidence now being tested for DNA, thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project. It will take months for those results to come back, but when they do, lots of us will be eager for answers. We may be getting many different stories from witnesses, the accused and podcast hosts, but DNA only has one tale to tell, and it’s the truth.
As of episode two, I’m interested enough in this case to overlook objectivity issues and a somewhat graceless delivery to continue to mine through Undisclosed for those few hidden gems. I have hope that some day the truth about this murder will be revealed, and until then, we have the stories to keep us guessing.