Serial is the story of who killed Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore High School student murdered in 1999. Except, Hae Min Lee is dead and so unable to speak, and her family declined to participate in Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast, so instead Serial is the story of Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend, and the man convicted of her murder. In every episode, the first human voice we hear after the recap is Syed himself, saying his own name. Whether by default or design, he’s the star. The question Serial asks most insistently is not “Who killed Lee?” but “Did Syed do it?” The answer to that, with one episode still to come, is a big fat maybe, with more than enough reasonable doubt to make Sayed’s conviction look shaky.
At the very least, he had a phenomenal amount of bad luck, and part of his bad luck was race. After playing a clip of Syed’s attorney cross-examining the state’s star witness (an acquaintance of Syed’s only known as Jay in the podcast), Koenig wonders how this played to the mostly black jury: a well-spoken black boy being harangued by an angry white lady probably didn’t do much to get the courtroom on Syed’s side, suggests the reporter. And then there’s Syed himself. 1999 is, obviously, pre-2001. A Muslim teenager in America then didn’t have the burden of suspicion then that came after 9/11, when his race and his faith would have marked him as an enemy of the state to many. But he was still marked – not as a terrorist, but as a dangerous alien with “dark” (the prosecution’s word) passions.
During jury selection, one male member of the pool approaches the bench to say he doesn’t think he can be impartial because “a friend of mine’s a Muslim, and I’ve seen him mistreat his family, his wife and everything.” Among the police documents, there’s a specialist consultant’s report into the cultural backdrop of the case, which explicitly suggests “honour” as a motive. And at pre-trial, the prosecutor sketched a picture of Syed as the archetypal honour killer as she requested that bail be denied, citing “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.”
The prosecutor’s claim was later retracted in full, although Koenig notes that even in the correction, one striking error stood: Syed is not Pakistani, he’s American with Pakistani heritage. If he has any connections to the terrible patterns of femicide and male authority in his parents’ homeland, they’re very hard to make out in his own biography. He’s a high-achieving student. A football player. A track athlete. Prom prince. He smokes weed and has sex with girls. He’s the pattern of a normal US teenager in every regard. Throughout the state’s case, Syed’s guiltiness and foreignness go hand in hand: when one is emphasised, the other gets exaggerated too. His defence responds in kind and stresses Syed’s Americanness as often as possible – but if it’s a fallacy to suggest that “Pakistani” equals “guilty”, it makes no more sense to say that “American” equals “innocent”.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four American women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in six have suffered rape or attempted rape, and one in 12 have been stalked. In American homicides, 90.3 per cent of offenders and 77.4 per cent of victims are men. The gap between those two figures is America’s femicide problem: violence is overwhelmingly male, and women are disproportionately likely to be victims. Serial constantly emphasises that everything in Syed and Lee’s relationship appeared to be normal by teenage standards, and it’s true that none of their friends saw any cause for alarm at the time. It’s also true that normal doesn’t necessarily mean benign when sexual violence and control is embedded in the cultural texture.
None of the things that Serial reveals about Syed and Lee’s relationship means that he killed her. What’s striking is that the controlling, possessive tendency you can track through the various accounts isn’t actually all that striking: Syed’s behaviour sounds sometimes chauvinistic and unpleasant, but always within the bounds of how you might expect a male American teenager to behave. So, he originally asked her out because he had a competition with his best friend to get the prettiest date for prom – at the very earliest point of their relationship, she’s more a trophy to him than a person. He showed up uninvited when she was out with her friends or at their houses, and there are mentions in her diary of him getting angry with her for not answering messages quickly enough.
Religion comes into it after all, as well – not as a motive for the murder (which is the prosecution’s contention), but as something Syed might have used to exert emotional control over Lee. Certainly there’s a mismatch between his version of himself as a not-particularly-observant Muslim, and her distraught diary entries recording him calling her a “devil” for drawing him from his faith. “I may have said it as a joke,” Syed concedes to Koenig in a phone interview. Some punchline, if it left Lee feeling responsible for his soul. He doesn’t seem to have accepted the breakup easily either, though he was dating other girls. A letter from Lee to Syed sounds tetchy and exasperated: “I’m really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is. You know people break up all the time. You’re life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.”
If these things are evidence of anything, at worst they’re evidence of Syed being a crappy, controlling boyfriend. They don’t mean he was abusive to Lee, and even if he was abusive to her, that doesn’t mean he was her murderer: there are many steps between that need to be filled with physical evidence and witness statements, which may not even be possible to obtain 15 years after the fact. But the complexion we put on the available facts is strongly influenced by how much we think about skin colour. When it comes to identifying cultural misogyny, it’s so much easier to spot when it comes infused with melanin. The kind of sexism that means we talk more about justice for a man than the life of a woman? Well that, after all, is just normal.