What Have the True Crime Podcasters Done?
Journalists are sadly susceptible to charismatic convicts, from Adnan Syed to Leonard Peltier.
The people who want to see a convicted murderer exonerated are generally more numerous and more passionate than those who want him to rot in prison. The victim, unlike the killer, has not been around to conduct a public relations campaign. Moreover, the people who care about the victim are less motivated, because, unlike the killer’s friends, they know that nothing they do will ever bring the person they love walking through the door again.
So it is not surprising that widespread jubilation greeted the release of Adnan Syed, who was serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee until his conviction was vacated this week by a judge. His story was made famous in 2014 by the massively popular true-crime podcast Serial, still the most listened to podcast in history with more than 300 million downloads. Original host Sarah Koenig came back to host a special episode of Serial celebrating Adnan’s freedom.
This jubilation must be hard for Hae Min Lee’s family to watch. I find it not very pleasant myself. Adnan’s trial was fair. The evidence was damning. Nothing that his defenders have uncovered, either in the original podcast or in this most recent motion to vacate the conviction, undermines the prosecution’s overwhelming case.
The key witness was Jay Wilds, who says Adnan came to him the day of the murder, showed him the body, and convinced him to help bury it in Leakin Park. Jay was Adnan’s weed dealer, which presumably is why Adnan chose him as an accomplice, thinking he would be less likely to go to the cops and less credible if he did so.
But the jury didn’t just take Jay’s word for it. His testimony was supported by other evidence, like the fact that Jay was able to lead police to the victim’s car where he and Adnan had abandoned it. Multiple eyewitnesses saw Jay and Adnan together the day of the murder, including a disinterested third party, a friend of a friend whose apartment Jay and Adnan visited that evening to get high, who observed Adnan receive a call from police asking about the victim and then panic, saying things like, “They’re gonna come talk to me. What am I supposed to say?” Cell phone location records corroborated Jay’s timeline, which Jay would not have known in advance when he first told his story.
None of the various rabbit holes or procedural objections pointed out by Adnan’s defenders touch the fundamentals of this case. Lots of little flaws do not add up to a big bombshell simply by piling up enough of them. One can listen to every episode of Serial and never hear an alternate theory of the case that would explain why Jay knew where the car was, why he would lie so elaborately, or who the real killer was.
Back in 1999, Adnan’s initial alibi for the evening of the murder was that he was at the mosque attending services. He dropped this claim when cell phone records put him nowhere near the mosque at that time. But before those records surfaced, the defense lined up dozens of witnesses willing to testify that Adnan had been present at the mosque that evening.
Considering the level of group cohesion on display in that false alibi, it is understandable that members of Adnan’s close-knit community would spend years trying to arouse public interest in his story and campaigning for his exoneration regardless of the facts. Rabia Chaudry, a family friend, was the most energetic of these. It was she who first approached Sarah Koenig about doing a story on Adnan.
What is more surprising is that Koenig would join in. She is more responsible than any other individual for Adnan’s freedom. Why did this NPR reporter get involved in the first place?
The answer, based on the podcast, seems to be that she was personally charmed by Adnan. In episode 6, when Adnan asks her what her interest in the case is, she answers, “My interest in it, honestly, is you. You’re a really nice guy. I like talking to you.” In another episode, she says she has a hard time believing Adnan did it because “I don’t think he’s a psychopath.... I think he has real feelings, because I’ve heard and seen him demonstrate empathy and emotion towards me, and towards other people.”
It is an old story: journalist charmed by convicted murderer. It happened to William F. Buckley and Edgar Smith (who, disappointingly, reoffended soon after his release), and Norman Mailer and Jack Henry Abbott (ditto), and William Styron and Benjamin Reid (ditto).
Of the many examples of charismatic killers who won over seasoned journalists, one is particularly relevant here: Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who shot two FBI agents in the head at close range after they were wounded in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in 1975. Peltier has long been a left-wing celebrity due to spurious claims that the FBI set him up. His number one champion, who wrote the book on his case, was Peter Matthiessen—Sarah Koenig’s stepfather.
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The evidence against Leonard Peltier is even more overwhelming than that against Adnan Syed. He admitted to participating in the shootout and firing at the agents. The close-range shots, the part that Peltier denies, were shown by ballistics to have been fired from a gun that witnesses say belonged to Peltier and no one else. When Peltier was located by law enforcement weeks after the shootout, he had in his possession one of the dead agent’s handguns in a paper bag.
Matthiessen was insanely credulous in his dealings with Peltier, accepting at face value wild tales of an FBI conspiracy. Alan Dershowitz reviewed Matthiessen’s book for the New York Times when it came out in 1983. He praised its passion but confessed, “As I was reading Mr. Matthiessen’s ‘legal brief,’ I found myself wanting to shout at this good-hearted naif, ‘Don’t you know that’s the kind of nonsense every convicted murderer tries to get you to believe; I get dozens of these letters every week.’”
Thankfully, Leonard Peltier remains in prison, despite coming very close to receiving a pardon in the 1990s. Only direct intervention by the FBI prevented it, when the director made it clear to President Bill Clinton that the bureau would react badly if the White House released a man who killed two of its agents. Ronald Williams and Jack Coler had something Hae Min Lee, unfortunately, does not: friends in high places protecting their memory.