Serial podcast: Don’t forget who the real victim is

In the enduring success of the most listened to podcast, Hae Min Lee’s voice has been lost

Imagine your wife or daughter was strangled to death and then a comedy sketch featuring the murderer draws a hilarious response when screened on a prime time TV show.

Image that a huge media organisation is profiting from your wife or daughter's murder by selling "a red leatherette cover journal" at €30 bearing the name of the programme examining her murder.

Imagine having people on social media happily chat away about your wife or daughter’s character and discuss her sex life with total impunity as you can’t libel the dead.

The Lee family in Baltimore, Maryland does not have to imagine this because they are living this reality this morning, and every morning, for the last 17 years.


In January 1999, Hae Min Lee, a cheerful and loving 18-year-old student at a school in Baltimore, was strangled to death and her mutilated body dumped in a forest.

Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was tried and convicted of her murder.

Doubts about Syed's conviction provided the content of the most listened to podcast of all time, Sarah Koenig's Serial two years ago.

On Thursday, Adnan Syed's murder conviction was vacated by a Baltimore court - meaning his conviction was overturned and he is free to be released on bail pending the prosecution appealing the verdict.

In the family’s only public comment on the case, made three months ago at the beginning of the legal process which led to the decision to vacate Syed’s conviction, the Lee family said: “The events of this past week have reopened wounds few can imagine”.

In the same statement they address the millions of listeners who had become enthralled by the Serial podcast and said it was hard to see so many run to defend the accused following a crime which had destroyed their family "when so few are willing to speak up for Hae" .

'Remember who the victim is'

“We ask that everyone remember who the victim is. It is easy to forget that seventeen years ago the beautiful, blossoming song of Hae Min Lee was silenced forever”. In short, the victim’s voice has been lost.

Whether Adnan Syed is guilty or not of their daughter’s murder is now again a question for the US legal system.

Sarah Koenig's Serial was brilliant, absorbing and responsible journalism which raised legitimate and worrying questions about Syed's original conviction.

But the success of the podcast meant the background noise around the case became so loud and incessant that it annexed the foreground.

It's not just that Serial fans turned amateur-sleuths flocked to the location of where a 18-year-old girl's mutilated body was dumped in a forest. They uploaded videos of the location and the most likely route along which Hae Min Lee's body was carried into the forest.

Comedy sketches about the podcast went out on Saturday Night Live, a Hitler "Downfall" parody video was made of the show and most bizarrely, a tweet from the official Sesame Street account featuring the character Bert made reference to a documentary show about a real-life murder.

That is what Hae Min Lee’s mother, father and brother have had to endure - in between the odd racial slur on their daughter.

This is not to say that social media has no role in real life crime solving. These days it plays an increasingly vital role in reaching out to potential witnesses and raising public awareness.

Also, if the Serial podcast - through exhaustive research and good journalistic practice - helped in overthrowing a miscarriage of justice, then hopefully other shows will do similar.

Profiting from murder

But the selling for profit of merchandise associated with the show and furry characters from Sesame Street referencing the murder of a 18-year-old girl are acts of wicked insensitivity to the Lee family.

There is also the danger of liberal button-pushing.

Serial referenced how Syed, a Pakistani-American and an observant Muslim, possibly faced prejudice during his legal journey. The TV programme Making A Murderer similarly made great play of a poor, uneducated man broken by the system.

These narratives appeal to the podcast/Netflix demographic - the little guy being done down by The Man.

The directors of Serial and Making A Murderer framed their presentation as skilfully as a prosecution or defence team would do in a court.

With both shows we were left in no doubt as to whether it was better for us, as an intelligent audience, to acquit or convict.

Given the massive ratings enjoyed by these shows, the old newspaper mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads” is increasingly holding sway in TV land as true crime dramas enjoy a resurgence.

Many more such programmes dramas are being scheduled for our delectation.

Making A Murderer was based on a real 25-year-old woman, Teresa Halbach, who was murdered and her body burnt in a barrel afterwards.

The Halbach family have said that they are “saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from their loss”.

Today’s headlines speak of justice at last for Adnan Syed.

An 18-year-old girl's short life, and the enduring pain of her family, seems an afterthought as the Serial podcast begins its climb up the iTunes charts again.

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment