The Serial podcast became a national phenomenon in 2014 when Sarah Koenig and her colleagues dug into an obscure 1999 murder case in which high school senior Adnan Syed allegedly murdered his ex-girlfriend and classmate Hae Min Lee. Listeners knew next to nothing about the intricacies of the case and Syed’s maintained innocence so every twist and turn uncovered by Serial was a revelation.
For the highly anticipated Season 2, Koenig and her team decided to go bigger. This time, they would be taking on a story everyone knows: the capture and eventual release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The Bergdahl case is undoubtedly a fascinating story with plenty of unknown mysteries waiting to be uncovered. It will make a very compelling movie someday at the hands of Koenig’s collaborator, Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal. But six episodes in, it has failed to capture the country’s imagination in the same way that we became obsessed with Syed’s struggle for justice.
That may explain why, on Thursday morning, Koenig announced that she is returning to her original story.
Just a few weeks after making Serial Season 2 biweekly to accommodate the wealth of material the Bergdahl story provides, Koenig sent an email to subscribers telling them she has decided to “duck back into” the Syed case now that he is finally back in court for a three-day hearing that could result in a retrial.
“What’s happening this week is not a new trial. It’s a hearing. It’s actually a continuation of Adnan’s petition for post-conviction relief—something you try only after you’ve exhausted your regular appeals. Kind of a last-ditch effort,” Koenig writes, employing the uniquely casual style that first endeared her to listeners. “He first filed that petition...wow...in 2010, I think. Long before I got interested in this case. In fact I think the very first time I talked to Adnan, was right when the court had ruled against him, had denied his petition.”
Koenig is among the reporters in the gallery of Baltimore Circuit Court this week, furiously scribbling notes in order to bring details of the proceeding back to the public. Over the next few days, she said, she plans to post a series of conversations with her producer Dana Chivvis on the Serial podcast feed, which will serve as a continuation of the original 12 episodes that concluded in December 2014—without the satisfying resolution for which listeners had hoped.
The first of three Season 1 updates went up this morning and in it Koenig describes the surreal feeling of hearing Serial discussed during the Syed hearing. Speaking to Chivvis from the closet of her hotel room, Koenig recapped the two main parts of the first day of the hearing.
For the first half of the day, she said the testimony focused on the competency of Syed’s lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who was quite sick at the time of the 1999 trial. The real question at hand is why Gutierrez did not call Asia McClain as an alibi witness for Syed. “Is there any strategic reason to why you would not check into this person?” the court was trying to determine.
But the main event was the appearance of McClain, who claims she saw her classmate Syed in the public library across the street from their high school at exactly the moment he was supposedly strangling Hae Min Lee in the parking lot of a local Best Buy.
“It was kind of intense in the courtroom when she was testifying,” Koenig said, describing the “surreal” moment when the defense asked McClain about Serial. “Is this happening right now?” she thought to herself.
Koenig always viewed McClain as the “key” to Syed’s case so to see her “stride into the courtroom” in all her “striking” and “beautiful” glory was a big moment. “There was just a lot of drama in the room while she was testifying,” Koenig said, “because there had been so much talk about her, and what she might have said, would have said, parsing everything she said… and then to just hear her say these things that sounded very straightforward was kind of arresting.”
McClain was very “sure of herself” in Koenig’s view as she recounted the story of seeing Syed in the library on the day of the murder. Asked why she wanted to testify, McClain answered, “I felt for justice to be served we should put all the information on the table, I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Yet, as strong as McClain’s testimony was, Koenig could already see how the prosecution plans to dismantle her credibility. “I don’t think they’re going to discredit her exactly, but I think what they’re going to do is say, ‘You think of yourself as someone with a really precise memory, but here are some ways in which we’re going to show you that your memory isn’t as precise as you think it is.’”
On the first day, they have already started “laying the foundation for her to not remember stuff” by asking her questions about her high school life that she can’t quite recall with the same certainty as she claims to remember her encounter with Syed. Koenig speculated that the prosecutors may be trying to suggest that McClain is remembering a different day.
It was this question of how we remember events from years ago in our past that made the first season of Serial such a revelatory listening experience. Over the course of the episodes, Koenig asked several of Syed’s classmates to remember simple details about what they were doing after school on a given day years earlier, and their respective memories were highly inconsistent. Even when she tried to get teenagers to remember what they did the week before, they could barely come up with a coherent answer.
As compelling as it is, the Bergdahl story does not have this same tension. For the most part, Koenig is relying on the memory of a man who was held in near-total isolation for years and as a result appears to have huge gaps in his memory of what happened to him while in captivity in Pakistan.
For many Serial fans, Koenig’s return to her original story is a welcome development. We spent about 10 hours following Syed and his case and at the end of the series we were no closer to knowing whether he committed the murder or not. With the possibility of a retrial still pending, it was hard to imagine why Koenig decided to move on. Thankfully, we now know she hasn’t.