“For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999. Or, if you want to get technical about it (and apparently I do), where a high school kid was for twenty-one minutes after school one day in 1999….”
And so it begins. Serial, a podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig.
The true story is told a week at a time. It takes us through Koenig’s investigation into the disappearance and murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed sits in prison today, fifteen years later, convicted of murdering Hae Min. He was seventeen years old when she disappeared and he had to answer that question: "so where were you on January 13, 1999?"
Hae Min Lee was the daughter of immigrant Korean parents and he, the first generation son of immigrants from Pakistan. His family is Muslim. Hers is not. Their love was a secret from both families. He can’t get permission to go to the home coming dance because, well, as I said he is Muslim. In Islam, genders do not mix until marriage. There is no “dating” in his culture, at least not his parents’ culture. Secretly he is not a good Muslim. He dates, he drinks, smokes weed, and hangs out with kids who do the same. But, he thinks, on the scale of stuff that kids do, his sins are minor. He is a good kid, with good grades, headed for college and an American life.
But did Adnan kill Hae Min? Or was it Adnan's friend Jay, who tells detectives he helped Adnan bury Hae Min. Jay got a sweetheart deal and avoided trial. He got probation, while Adnan got life.
Here you find plot, characters, a true crime “who done it” with the ups and downs of the journalists who try and figure out if Adnan is wrongly convicted. Sometimes, Koenig confides, she thinks he might be guilty. Sometimes she cannot believe he did it.
So did he kill his high school sweetheart? Did the police botch the investigation? What about his lawyer – did she throw the case to collect more money on an appeal?
The first episode is entitled The Alibi. It will hook you and you will not soon stop listening. As I started the podcasts on my trip to a court hearing a hundred or so miles north of me today, I was reminded that great storytelling must be shared and we lawyers can learn much from Koenig.
If you are charged with a crime you will learn more about the system – cops and judges and the way that lawyers work, or should work - than anything else you are likely to read or listen to. It may cause you sleepless nights because you must confront the reality that almost nobody starts out believing you are innocent - presumptions be damned. But more about that later.
And if you are a trial lawyer; a guy like me with baggy pants, an aging face and a love of battles before parties of twelve, you will be captivated. I don’t say this casually. This series is filled with lessons for lawyers about (drumroll please):
The only real way to win at trial is to tell our clients’ story. Even when we do that well we may still lose, but this much is clear.
No story, no chance.
Story sells. Not lawyers. Not high priced suits with fancy briefcases. Nope. Story, and the ability to convey that story to the jury. The best lawyers are the best storytellers. Period.
So go to the website (serialpodcast.org) and start to listen. Serial begins with this dilemma – how would you tell an investigator who believed you killed your former girlfriend and secret lover where you were, what you saw, who you were with and the sequence of a day that happened six weeks ago?
Assume your life and freedom depend on it.
Because it might. For Adnan Syed, it did. Your alibi is your story.
And then let’s talk about storytelling in the next week or so – if I can ever break away from preparing for that next trial.