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On Monday afternoon, Adnan Syed walked free after a Maryland judge overturned his 2000 conviction for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend, when they were both teenagers in 1999. Syed left the Baltimore courthouse to cheers – in part because many people worked for years, sometimes decades, to free a man who has always maintained his innocence. And partly because Syed is a celebrity as the subject of the first season of Serial, the hit documentary podcast that essentially kickstarted the genre boom in the mid-2010s.

At first glance, it’s easy to relate Syed’s output to Serial’s influence as a true-crime podcast. The show’s first season, released in 2014, brought the case to mainstream attention. It was downloaded over 68 million times in less than a year, became the first podcast to win a Peabody Award, and spawned countless imitators. The series has become part of the cultural ether of the 2010s – a lightning rod for discussions of the ethics of true crime investigation as entertainment, fodder for online participatory research, and an aesthetic touchstone for a certain media age. Host Sarah Koenig’s analysis of esoteric detail and soothing narration — journalistic authority cut short by personal confessions, grappling with the case in real time — has become a veritable crime podcast of rigor. (The Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building is essentially a long parody of the series-style podcast.) The NYPD tried to cash in on the true crime podcast boom with its own in-house production, Break in the Case.

Still, it would be incorrect to attribute Syed’s release to the podcast juggernaut who survived the diminishing attention to his case. Public pressure from Serial and other investigations into the wrongfulness of Syed’s conviction — the Undisclosed podcast, or the 2019 HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed — did not release him. Instead, years of work by lawyers finally came to fruition with a new law, a fresh look from the prosecutor’s office, and an official review. Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act of 2021, which allows people who have been incarcerated for more than 20 years for crimes committed as minors to have their sentences commuted, put Syed’s case back in place. Prosecutors scrutinized him more than they needed to and lost faith in the conviction. State’s motion to overturn Syed’s conviction is not an alternate theory on who killed Hae Min Lee, but an acknowledgment of systemic failures – crucial evidence withheld by the defense, reliance on unreliable eyewitness testimony , flimsy evidence (in this case, the cellphone tower recordings) treated as attestable fact.

Sarah Koenig at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse on September 19. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It is impossible to disentangle Syed’s case more broadly from serial entertainment or true crime; it is not a linear cause and effect. But prosecutors’ admission that Syed’s conviction was riddled with errors reflects how the vanguard of true crime has changed since the boom ushered in by Serial and docuseries such as 2015’s The Jinx and Making a Murderer. from Netflix. In the years since Serial’s takeoff, many productions, including later incarnations of the flagship show, have shifted the focus from individual cases ripe for Reddit dissection to examinations of system design flaws. American criminal justice.

Netflix’s The Innocence Files, produced in conjunction with the Innocence Project (whose Baltimore clinic worked on Syed’s behalf), details in six devastating chapters how wrongful conviction is a feature, not a bug, of American courts; almost every episode corresponds to a mistake in Syed’s case. Ava DuVernay’s 13th, made for Netflix in 2016, challenged America’s prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration of people of color, especially black Americans. Netflix’s 2020 series Immigration Nation has been embedded in Immigration and Customs Enforcement for two years, capturing the shocking banality of routine government cruelty. Another 2020 Netflix series, How to Fix a Drug Scandal, examined how two compromised Massachusetts state chemists — invisible but crucial figures in the criminal justice system — overturned tens of thousands of drug convictions that have changed lives. Showtime’s 16 Shots, Cyntoia Brown: Murder to Mercy, Time: the Kalief Browder story, Dirty Money, – all use true crime examples as evidence of a broken system and prioritize defense over entertaining suspense.

The series has also adapted since its chart-topping debut season drew attention to the ethics of using true crime as narrative entertainment, no matter how well-intentioned, and for podcast rendering of immigrant communities. (Syed is of Pakistani descent, Lee was of Korean descent.) don’t control it,” she said of online dissections of Syed’s case. “It was silly to think we could control it, but we certainly tried.”

The bubbly popularity that Serial brought to Syed’s case also didn’t sit well with those involved. “Serial fired Adnan’s story, to some extent deliberately, and never apologized or made amends. Should I be grateful? I struggle to be,” Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s childhood friend and longtime lawyer who first took her case to Koenig, tweeted in September. “But I am grateful to the thousands of people who responded to the fire to help rebuild this house.” (In 2015, Chaudry and two co-hosts released Undisclosed, a podcast about wrongful convictions, starting with Syed.)

Serial’s second season shifted from a question of guilt/innocence to weirder “whys” in the desertion of American soldier-turned-Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl. And its third season has gone entirely from a single story; instead, the producers were embedded for a year in a single courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio, and focused on “extraordinary stories of ordinary cases” that “highlight the unsettling machinery of the criminal justice system”. “If you’re looking for a murder mystery, this isn’t it,” Koenig said ahead of its 2018 release. The show’s parent company, Serial Productions, acquired by The New York Times in 2020, has released series about white parents and public schools, a case of voter fraud in North Carolina and institutionalized Islamophobia in the UK.

How true crime media has changed since the Serial |  Serial
Adnan Syed on September 19. Photography: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

There will always be true-crime documentaries, schlocky TV series and podcasts – entertainment appealing to basic human interest in spectacle, vicarious trauma or the futile quest to map out a killer’s psychology. serial. See: the Crime Junkie, Morbid or My Favorite Murder podcasts, which use suffering as the basis for the popcorn obsession; the Netflix series Conversations With a Killer (the latest, released in October, focuses on Jeffrey Dahmer); Ted Bundy’s boring obsession with streaming services.

But the true content of the crime has, in part, matured from the obsessive dissection of individual stories to critiques of the system as a whole. This includes the ever-evolving public relationship with Syed’s case. “Adnan’s case contains just about every chronic problem our system can spit out,” Koenig said in a new 16-minute episode of Serial released Tuesday, updating listeners on Syed’s exit. “It’s hard to celebrate a triumph of fairness because we’ve built a system that takes over 20 years to self-correct.”

Syed’s content continues – HBO announced Wednesday that production is underway on a new episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed for 2023, with “exclusive access” to Syed – and the real world of crime will only expand . But it’s impossible to engage with the genre now without understanding Serial’s influence and the multitude of questions raised by its practice. The best true crime productions worked to course-correct, putting the weight of public attention on systemic failures rather than private pain.

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