Guilty or not guilty. It’s the crux of the matter. It’s why five million (and counting) listeners of the Serial podcast anxiously await each new installment. Serial tells the story of a crime that actually happened, with all the attendant suspense related to alibis and motive and DNA and cell phone records—investigative elements that are mother’s milk to those who have been raised on Law & Order and CSI. The evidence for guilt, or against it, mounts and recedes and builds again, and every hour of Serial brings fresh new reasons—if evidence from a crime committed in 1999 could be called fresh—to consider whether Adnan Syed, the center of the investigation, is guilty or not guilty.

We’re a bunch of Nancy Drews, five million strong, coming along with Sarah and her trusty mic and recorder as she digs through police records and tracks down reluctant witnesses. The murder investigation as the new frontier of DIY. That is, unless you are part of the prosecution for the state of Maryland, where the crime took place. The state decided long ago that Adnan Syed is guilty, convicting him while he was still a teenager of murdering another teenager, his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. The clock stopped for her in the most terrible way imaginable when she was just 18, at the edge of adulthood. The clock has ticked on for Adnan, who crossed over into adulthood while in prison and is now fully in its throes. Having been found legally guilty of the crime, he will live in prison until he dies, unless the state is compelled to provide relief for his verdict on appeal.

Serial’s listeners, officially powerless though we may be, are eager to reverse it. Or at least revisit it. The evidence that indicated Adnan’s guilt was scant in 1999 and looks even more scattered 15 years later, the original trail of crumbs long since gobbled up by the passage of time. But that’s easy to say from this distance, and Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial and the chief investigator, follows the evidence while also following her gut. She seems to want to believe that Adnan is not guilty because she has a hunch that he is not guilty. Most listeners probably feel the same way, since Sarah Koenig is our proxy. She admits to being an amateur in this whole process, and shares her status as a non-professional with her listeners. We’re a bunch of Nancy Drews, five million strong, coming along with Sarah and her trusty mic and recorder as she digs through police records and tracks down reluctant witnesses. The murder investigation as the new frontier of DIY. We’re all in this together.

Which is why, at this point in the series, it feels crucial that Adnan turns out to be the nice guy he seems to be in interviews—someone incapable of committing murder. Adnan himself scoffs at this sentiment, saying to Sarah in one of his conversations with her, “To be honest with you, it kind of…I feel like I want to shoot myself if I hear someone else say, ‘I don’t think you did it because you’re a nice guy, Adnan.’”

Adnan’s comment complicates things for Sarah, and for us too. If only he were more emphatic, more impassioned, more ablaze with the injustice of his conviction. He was declared guilty of murder, a crime he insists he didn’t commit. He should be pacing the floor of his cell when he’s not checking out books from the prison library, conducting research and reading legal briefs. Adnan should take this opportunity, the megaphone provided by Serial and its devoted hordes, and shout again and again that he didn’t do it until someone on the outside with a measure of power pays attention.

Yet, there is Adnan as presented on the show, his voice halting, full of stops and starts as he pauses to declare, in measured tones, his innocence. This hesitation and its air of resignation carry a faint hint of culpability. If Adnan didn’t commit the crime, then why does he seem to feel guilty?

Because maybe he feels guilty.

Not in the legal sense necessarily, but he may still somehow feel a sense of responsibility. Guilt, contrary to its reputation, has more than one definition.  Moral guilt exists in a category all its own, one that encompasses and exceeds the facts of the matter, which might include whether or not you yourself actually wielded a murder weapon.

As a teenager, Adnan deceived his parents, he had sex, he smoked pot, he drank. All the volunteering he did at his mosque and the fact that he was popular enough to be voted prom prince of his high school dance doesn’t do away with the fact that, according to the standards he subscribed to as a Muslim, he failed. He’s not alone in this of course. It’s no secret, at least among the kids themselves, that many second-generation Muslim-Americans and children of South Asian immigrants experience the reality of dating on the downlow and its necessary deception. To the amateur investigators, listening to Serial and scanning Adnan’s roster of misbehavior, making a connection between smoking pot and committing murder seems laughable. And yet, the prosecution managed to make much of Adnan’s deceptions during his trial, characterizing him as a manipulator, one who couldn’t be trusted.

In his conversations with Sarah Koenig, Adnan expresses regret. He wishes he had been a “better Muslim,” as he put it. He says this both directly and in so many words, and Sarah keeps missing his point. Adnan wishes he had followed the dictates of his community and his conscience when he was a teenager, that maybe, if he had been different then, everything would be different now. If this is his posture, the place where that hint of culpability comes from, then no wonder Sarah and her listeners don’t get it. We all have our eyes on the prize: the discovery of evidence solid enough to prove that Adnan did not commit the crime, to prove he is legally innocent. But maybe this sort of exoneration doesn’t signify to Adnan, an observant Muslim, in exactly the way we listeners, outside the walls of his life, assume. Maybe he knows that moral absolution is not the same as legal innocence.

Moral guilt is a powerful emotion, and, in contemporary life, difficult to identify and understand. When it does turn up, it’s not framed the way it once was in western culture: the doctrine of original sin (“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”). Moral guilt is the sort which emerges from inside ourselves, the well that never runs dry, without divine intervention. It is the stuff of literature, from Shakespeare to Hawthorne, with all the bone-chilling regret contained in their plays and novels, a regret that came from the seat of the soul.

What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self! — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

For a person of faith, acknowledging general moral culpability doesn’t imply guilt in the eyes of the state. It just means that we understand human frailty better than most—that we start from a position of humility, of acknowledging a need for something greater than ourselves. In listening to Serial, I began thinking about my own sense of guilt, my own culpability. I look at my rap sheet and the rationalist inside applauds: so far I’ve stayed out of the court system; I must be good, and society is lucky to have me. But my soul is another matter. In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. The guilt ascribed to my soul transcends the justice or injustice meted out by my fellow humans, which means my soul’s redemption, its absolution, is equally transcendent. And thank God for this, because, if there’s anything that Serial has revealed to us, it’s that people are often wrong.


2 Comments

  1. Really great article here. I love the Serial podcast and have found myself thinking how I might react in Adnan’s situation, wondering about his ability to stay composed during his interviews. I guess I simply chalked it up to the amount of time he has endured in prison and the possible resignation and cynical understanding of the system that has developed in the confines of those cell walls. It is a very interesting prospect you have suggested by discussing the nuances of internalized guilt and how it may manifest to outsiders. I now tend to agree that it might be more of a factor than the general audience might initially suspect. It shows a slight contrast of a faith put in our own righteousness versus the faith the righteousness of Christ alone. So my only critique, and take it as you will, would be the missed opportunity to follow through with a distinction in the guilt we experience when we look to our “goodness” set against the righteousness offered in Christ. Obviously, I can’t speak for your intention in writing this piece, so I simply offer it on the website named Christ and Pop culture. Really enjoyable read.

  2. The personal reflection Serial has caused you sounds valuable.

    But I couldn’t help feeling like a spectator in the Roman coluseum.

    For me it became “entertainment”. When I considered what I was being entertained by I cancelled my subscription to the Podcast.

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