The Construction of Truth in Serial: Forensic Rhetoric in the Podcast
A body found in Leakin Park, a failed alibi, and inconsistent first-hand testimony and cell phone tower records were all it took to convict a young Muslim teenager guilty of first-degree murder. In his senior year in Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. His hands, that allegedly left deep fingerprints in Hae’s neck in an act of strangling vengeance, are now in cuffs at the Maryland Correctional Facility. Adnan has now spent as much time in prison as out of it: convicted of first-degree murder at age seventeen, he is now, in 2018, thirty-five years old. Much local protest has surrounded the verdict, regarding how the case was run, the facts jurors relied on to make their decisions, as well as the inadequacy of the Defense Attorney, Ms. Christina Gutierrez. Former journalist and current podcaster Sarah Koenig explores Adnan Syed’s 1999 case in the Serial podcast. This production, arguably the most well known of all modern podcasts, is one of many audio productions revitalizing the forensic rhetorical genre in the 21st century.
By challenging the forensic process condemning Adnan Syed guilty of first-degree murder, the Serial podcast critiques truth as a rhetorical construction. Though the forensic legal process is depicted as a logical path – relying on enthymemes where one major premise, and one minor unstated minor premise lead to the ultimate conclusion – Serial highlights how this process relies on the unconscious bias of the listeners. Koenig leverages the podcast medium to put Adnan Syed’s trial back on trial, to examine the syllogistic reasoning process and courtroom narrative that left Syed behind bars. Koenig destabilizes the author function and adopts roles of storyteller, prosecutor, investigator, and witness to challenge the dominating narrative that left Adnan Syed behind bars and challenge our societal insistence on forensic courtroom truth. Unlike the podcasts in other chapters that engage and extend the rhetorical form, Serial is markedly critical about the forensic genre.
Koenig, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, sees the traditional courtroom forensic process as nothing more than a competition between narratives. The cases of both the Defense and the Prosecution, she contests in an interview, are just components of “the public story” constructed for “the theater going on in court” (Raptopoulos). Koenig adopts the role of storyteller in Serial to challenge the courtroom narrative that declared Adnan Syed guilty, as she crafts her twelve-episode narrative investigating other suspects and facets of the case. Koenig acknowledges that it is a “natural thing as humans” to “just want to know what happens next” in a story about young people, romance, sex, drugs, and death, so she intentionally “suppl[ies] that tension and narrative thread” to maintain and even augment listener engagement with the verdict in Serial (Raptopoulos).
Koenig repeatedly refers to her podcast as a “story,” and employs audio narration techniques that harken back to oral storytelling traditions. Just as cultures would sit in a circle of intimacy to hear a story of old, Serial invites listeners to lean in and hear human voices reconsider Adnan Syed’s case. Koenig introduces the 1999 case with a dramatic description fit for the prologue of a romantic novel. She claims that the case, “on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mash-up – young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge.” She continues to say that “the main stage” for her “crime story” is “a regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven,” again employing theatrical rhetoric to paint the scene for the case’s story to soon follow. Adnan Syed himself begrudgingly refers to Koenig’s podcast as a “story” during one of his interviews at the Maryland Correctional Facility. In a moment of frustration towards Koenig in Episode 11, he dejectedly says, “it doesn’t matter to me how your story portrays me, guilty or innocent. I just want it to be over,” the story of her podcast not unlike the story of the crime (and in the courtroom) that has been weighing on Adnan Syed in prison the last seventeen years.
Koenig further exercises her role of storyteller by creating portraits of the suspects and witnesses in her podcast. As Koenig puts Adnan’s trial back on trial to scrutinize its narrative and verdict, she invites listeners to then judge each of her character’s guilt or innocence. Koenig spends most of her narrative attention on Adnan Syed, the protagonist of her podcast’s murder story. She begins her characterization by saying that Adnan “was prince of his junior prom, and this at a high school that was majority black. They picked the Pakistani Muslim kid. So you get the picture. He was an incredibly likable and well-liked kid.” She is engaging with the listeners’ endoxa, or their psychological opinions that often informs forensic reasoning, depicting Adnan as the likeable “kid around the block” that audience members have developed personal affections for in their own lives (Belle et. al 27). Koenig continues to engage with listeners’ endoxa by explaining that when she first “met Adnan in person, [she] was struck by two things. He was way bigger than [she] expected– barrel chested and tall,” and that he had “brown eyes like a dairy cow.” The former of these descriptions paints a physical picture of Adnan (and subtly hint that he is more physically capable of a murder than Koenig had first realized from reading the court records). The latter of these descriptions, according to Koenig, “prompt… my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend?” Koenig provokes her listeners to answer these rhetorical questions, encouraging them to investigate the crime story for themselves and decide if a person like Adnan could be capable of murder in this accessible examination of forensic rhetoric.
Unlike forensic rhetoricians that simply state addresses (or relevant details about the physical landscape) of where crimes occurred, Koenig provides poetic, romanticized detail about the landscape to provide alternative interpretations of the case specifics. She describes the Best Buy (where the crime had allegedly occurred), and the area that surrounds with pointed description, saying, “It’s in this little strip mall. Across the parking lot, there’s a new Pakistani restaurant, an African evangelical church, an Indian clothing shop, a convenience store. On the sidewalk outside, I found a teeny weeny bag of marijuana.” These carefully narrated descriptions provide racial and socioeconomic context for the place in which the crime was committed, details that could have been largely omitted in a State Court (either overlooked or taken for granted.) Koenig’s most vivid descriptions are of the Maryland Correctional Facility, the place where Adnan physically speaks to her in their weekly conversations on the prison phone. She describes that Adnan seated near a “bank of eight pay phones in the rec hall, a pretty large room where other guys are sitting at tables with metal seats attached to them or playing chess or cards or using the microwave or watching TV.” The detail of the metal chairs attached to the seats is a subtle, descriptive reminder of their incarceration that Koenig’s narration masterfully accomplishes. The strong and vivid descriptions of settings, the intense action she pays to physical detail, are similar to those given, and examined, in a case. Koenig’s descriptions become valuable testimony for listeners are they plunge into the case and critique the verdict.
Koenig employs music to escort and intensify her podcast’s narrative. Light, pensive piano notes undergird the first minutes of every episode, piquing listener’s curiosity and priming them to start their own auditory investigation of the trial. Koenig overlaps a recording from the Maryland Correctional facility over this beginning sound bite, which says, “This is a Global-Tel link prepaid call from Adnan Syed an inmate at a Maryland Correctional facility,” reminding podcast listeners of Adnan’s ongoing imprisonment. This light, pensive piano also concludes every Serial episode, serving as a narrative thread linking one episode to the next. It is consistent and tragic-sounding, much like Adnan’s conviction and incarceration, undergirding Koenig’s entire prison story. Beyond this, Koenig inserts sound bites of the actual prison, hearing the operator warn that Adnan’s allotted phone time is running out. Koenig explains that this sound, which happens “every half an hour… surprise me every time because I often sort of forget where he is.” Listeners are reminded, like Koenig, that Adnan’s hopeful human voice is contained behind bars for a crime he may have not committed. The music and ambient prison sounds enter listeners into the narrative space of the jail that the podcast explores.
In conclusion, Koenig’s repeated use of the word “story” illustrates the unique intersection of her roles as journalist, narrator, and criminal investigator enabled by the podcast medium. The word “story” is used within the journalism community to talk about a published piece; journalists write and publish “stories” about newsworthy topics. Similarly, the law itself is literature; Koenig provides her own “story” in this piece to counteract (and improve) the law of the courtroom. The podcast is neither a news brief, nor is it a formal legal appeal, nor is it a formal story in a novel or a movie, but is rather an entirely separate detached realm where Koenig and her listeners can engage with the decision of this now-famous case, challenging the dominating narrative that had incarcerated Adnan Syed in the first place.
Rather than use forensic rhetoric as a formal process to accuse or defend someone, Serial uses the podcast medium to accuse the trial of being insufficient. Koenig assumes the prosecutor role to scrutinize the enthymematic process so many rely on to arrive at a verdict. Within this role, Koenig breaks down the hierarchy of truth. In particular, Koenig prosecutes the enthymeme, or the syllogistic reasoning process that relies on one stated major premise (an explicit, well-known fact) and an unstated minor premise (that listeners take for granted) to arrive at the final conclusion (Aristotle xlii). She is particularly wary of how rhetoricians destabilize listeners with the unstated premise, encouraging them to fill the intentional void and be persuaded on an unconscious level.
The podcast inhabits and rejects the small conclusions the jury made throughout the forensic process en route to the final verdict. The verdict of Adnan’s guilt relied on several smaller conclusions: that his rebellious history as an Islamic teenager made him the perfect candidate for murder, that he had no alibi, that the cell phone records placed him near Leakin Park around the time he was allegedly burying the body. Koenig examines the unstated minor premises jurors relied on to arrive at these conclusions, functioning as prosecutor to successfully do so. Through the podcast medium, Koenig directly interrogates the proceedings of the case, inviting her listeners to similarly ask questions and reconsider the court proceedings. The content of the podcast becomes very much like the content of the case, a large file of evidence where listeners are invited to reconsider the verdict.
The first conclusion Serial scrutinizes within the 1999 case is that Adnan was an untrustworthy teenager that killed his girlfriend in violent, religiously motivated rage. Serial examines the endoxa, or the psychological opinions, of judges and jurors who have arrived at this decision. Adnan was a devout Muslim that attended and assisted services at the local mosque. His parents largely forbid him from having any romantic relationship, to abstain from sex, drugs, and alcohol. Koenig explains that the “State had used this against him in two ways.” The Court first argues that because Adnan had high emotional investment in his relationship with Hae Lee Min, he killed her out of rage when they broke up. The podcast functions as an explanation for that logical jump, identifying the unstated minor premises that led jurors to that conclusion. The minor unstated premise escorting to make this decision was motivated by religious bias and Islamophobia: because Adnan “put everything on the line – his family, his relationship at the mosque – to run around this girl,” he would strangle her after she ended such a high-stakes relationship. Because his religion so staunchly prohibited pre-marital sex, Adnan would have an equally radical, violent reaction when the relationship ended. This unstated major premise relies on prejudice misconceptions about the Islamic religion and domestic violence, aligning Adnan with stereotypical violent caricatures of Islamic men as portrayed in the media. Though Adnan was no different from other rebellious teenagers wanting to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex, suspicion about his religion prompted jurors to arrive at a racially biased decision that such rebellion was a precursor and indicator of murder.
The State also used Adnan’s Muslim background to conclude that he was “duplicitous” or untrustworthy, the character of a man who would murder his ex-girlfriend and then proceed to lie about it on the stand. If Adnan was dishonest in his home life (lying to his parents and his faith that prohibited such behavior), the court concluded that he’d be likely dishonest about murdering Hae Lee Min. This conclusion relied on the unstated premise that Adnan “play[ed] the good Muslim son at home and at the mosque” but in reality lived a morally repugnant life of sex and drugs. The stress on Adnan’s faith, in this instance, illustrates the endoxa and psychological prejudices motivating the jurors’ decision. This unstated minor premise inherently “others” Muslims, assuming that Islamic teenagers do not have the normal impulses that White ones do. Koenig speaks to other Muslim teenagers when exploring this enthymeme, discovering that they too had kept their romantic relationships secret from their parents (as well as their extracurricular substance use.) Koenig considers that the only difference between Adnan and other non-Muslim teenagers was that Adnan had stricter parents, something that does not warrant such drastic conclusions on his character and fitness or ability to murder.
Koenig also examines how the Court deemed many of Adnan’s classroom and after-school activities as suspicious and indicative of a violent, untrustworthy personality. The State argued that Adnan, an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), leveraged his anatomical knowledge to successfully strangle Hae. Koenig prosecutes the enthymematic reasoning that prompted this conclusion, targeting the unstated premise within this conclusion that if someone knew how to strangle someone, and had a motive to do so, then they (reasonably) committed the murder in question. Koenig combats that unstated premise on two levels: not only does she deny Adnan’s motive for committing the murder, but she also rejects the premise that Adnan joined the EMT services to gain strangling skills. Her interviews with Adnan’s family and friends show Adnan joined the EMT because it boosted his resume, gave him some extra money before college, and primarily because “he liked old people and his job was mostly to ride in the back of the ambulance with old people, make sure they were okay.” The Court also addresses Adnan’s poetry, arguing that his poems showed a menacing “dark side” belonging to an angry murderer. Koenig turns to the unstated premise that teenage angst poetry was related to violent inhibitions; she interviews Adnan’s poetry teacher, Ms. Jane Efron, who claims Adnan’s poetry was nothing unusual (and actually quite common amongst teenagers of his age.) Koenig’s role as a prosecutor allows a more exhaustive character analysis that is often unsuccessful in the formal forensic process, as her podcast platform invites other voices to chime in and challenge the unstated premises first released by the court.
The largest conclusion Koenig addresses as prosecutor within the Serial podcasts was that Adnan Syed left school (sometime between 2:15 and 2:36 p.m.) to strangle Hae Lee Min in the Best Buy parking lot. This conclusion relied on the unstated premise that if Adnan was not at the library (when he should have been), he was then off-campus, strangling his ex-girlfriend. Serial challenges this conclusion by calling attention to an affidavit that Defense Attorney, Christina Gutierrez, did not bring to trial. This affidavit claimed Asia McClain, one of Adnan’s classmates, did see Adnan in the library during that window of time. Koenig explains that she “had become fixated on finding Asia… like a bloodhound on this thing,” particularly in the first few episodes of Serial because “the whole case seemed to me to be teetering on her memories of that afternoon.” Koenig, as we will later discuss, personally investigates Asia and her testimony to prosecute this particular enthymeme of the case, which (along with other unexamined evidence) have, according to the NY Times, granted Adnan a “new trial on all charges” (Stack.)
Finally, Koenig addresses the conclusion that Jay’s testimony, placing Adnan in Leakin Park between 7:09 and 7:16 p.m., was accurate. Jay allegedly helped Adnan bury Hae’s body in Leakin Park, and was one of the first to communicate the murder to the police. Adnan’s cell records show that he had received two phone calls between 7:09 and 7:16 p.m., in an area near the burial grounds. The Court relies on the unstated premise that cell phone records (which show which towers are “pinged” when one makes an outgoing call) are trustworthy pieces of evidence that can locate where a person was when they made a call. Koenig’s team peruses old AT&T contracts and discovers the fine print (that Defense Attorney, Christina Gutierrez, neither read nor brought to trial): that one cannot trust cell phone tower data to locate where a person was when receiving incoming calls. They do not provide trustworthy location data that can serve as sufficient evidence. Koenig attaches the AT&T contract which states this fact on Serial’s website, providing multimedia proof of the falseness of this testimony. Koenig’s podcast (and its associated website) add and consider overlooked and misinterpreted evidence from the 1999 trial. Not only is the podcast then a critique of the forensic process taking place in Baltimore County seventeen years ago, but it is also an extension of its powers and reach into the audio medium.
Koenig, in putting the trial on trial and interrogating the enthymematic reasoning one relies on to make a verdict, personally challenges the prosecutor role. She does nothing more than function as an audience member compiling information, and does not have the ability to construct master narratives or personally arrive at any conclusions. The audio medium permits her to break down, explore, and scrutinize facets of the case, but does not endow her with any legal power to actually make final solutions. Her podcast did, however, stir up legal interest. The evidence her podcast discussed (and the new interpretations of the case it revealed) prompted two hearings in 2016 that re-evaluate Adnan’s sentence, and as of April 2018, granted Adnan Syed an entirely new trial on all charges. The affidavit and phone cell records Koenig discusses in the podcast become key parts of reconsidering the 1999 verdict.
Koenig uses the power of the audio medium to investigate the case, to again challenge the court’s narrative and critique the perceived “truth” of Adnan’s guilt. She explains she’d begun Serial simply to investigate Asia McClane’s affidavit that had largely ignored in the first trial, believing that the whole case “seemed to me to be teetering on her memories of that afternoon.” Koenig ultimately finds (and then interviews) Asia McClain, using her personal investigative skills to contribute new details and insight to the 1999 case. Though the sound quality is poor, it illustrates just how the podcast (and the associated calling and recording technologies) can allow Koenig to run her own trial through her studio, reexamining all the evidence at hand, making the forensic rhetorical form a more accessible process. Upon interviewing Asia, and running through the entire evidence portfolio for the trial, Koenig discovers the case was far more complicated than this simple affidavit, turning her investigative sound editing attention to examine the suspects of the case, the inconsistent testimonies, and the jury that made the decision.
Koenig employs heteroglossic sound edits to explore Jay’s role within Hae’s murder. Jay is an enigmatic town drug dealer and “rabble-rouser” on whom the State’s case depends. Koenig, largely unclear “whether [Jay] was a good guy or not a good guy,” interviews his classmates, peers, and teachers, juxtaposing their testimonies into a singular audio track. The conversation within this sound bite shows Jay to not only be unpredictable and enigmatic, but also largely untrustworthy. Koenig explains (and soon demonstrates) that Jay “defied categorization. He was different.” A male voice (speaking from a telephone) says Jay was the “one black kid who had a lip ring, and listened to, like Rage Against the Machine,” a Hispanic female voice explains how he was constantly changing his hair from red to blonde, another male voice describes his BMX belt buckle. A female voice says that the “best way I can describe him is Dennis Rodman,” and other male voices describe him as a “weirdo,” or someone their mothers would disapprove of being at their homes. These different descriptions woven into one singular audio testimony illustrate the difficulty both Jay’s classmates (and arguably, his jurors) had to understand and characterize him in the dominant narrative that became his case. Though the Court had presented one clear narrative of Jay – a man with a troubled childhood and upbringing that wanted to bring justice to Hae’s death – the podcast’s heteroglossic sound edits prompt listeners to reconsider his role in the case, calling to question the conclusions of his innocence so heavily relied upon in court. Koenig’s investigation begs the question: could Jay be the culprit of Hae Lee Min’s murder?
The podcast’s heteroglossic sound edits also become testimony for, and evidence of, a poorly run (and arguably inaccurate) forensic case. Serial’s sound edits elucidate discrepancies in the trial, particularly those in Jay’s testimony. Koenig juxtaposes two of Jay’s interviews with the police, discussing how Jay had changed the location where Adnan had requested he pick him up the day he allegedly murdered Hae. In the first sound bite, Jay says Adnan requested he pick him up at “The Strip,” a small, designated block where people gather to sell drugs, near Edmonson Street. In the second sound bite, Jay testifies that Adnan requested he pick him up at the local Best Buy. These heteroglossic sound edits uniting two pieces of testimony in a one track communicate the dissonance of Jay’s two different testimonies. Koenig chastises the defense (specifically censuring Defense Attorney Gutierrez) for failing to pay needed attention to these discrepancies. Her podcast then embodies the role Gutierrez failed to fill, re-engaging and interacting with the evidence to create a new narrative and understanding of the case. If they can’t fully trust Jay, how can they sentence Adnan to a life in prison? Why is Jay lying? Is he hiding his own involvement in the murder?
Additionally, Koenig employs heteroglossic sound edits to illustrate how difficult it was for both the witnesses, and the jurors, to recall testimony and arrive at a verdict. Koenig stresses that it is nearly impossible for all those involved with the murder to accurately remember every detail, especially since the police were began interrogations three weeks after the fact. To demonstrate this, she features interviews of teenagers (one of which is her nephew) as she acts them to recall what they had done three weeks prior. The hesitation and vacillation in her nephew’s voice (just to explain details of what happened a few weeks before) vocally communicates just the struggles many of the case’s key players had in remembering facts in testimony. The way Koenig combines this testimony with that of other teenagers, in one audio track, provides listeners with a more tangible understanding of how difficult this recall is (and also imbues the forensic process with a more human, forgiving touch.) Additionally, these heteroglossic edits humorously criticize the forensic process, illustrating how problematic it is for a case so large and complex to hinge on such difficult recall requirements.
Koenig also presents heteroglossic sound edits to both describe and investigate the jurors in the 1999 case, to highlight their backgrounds that could have potentially biased their decision. Before the case begins, the case’s judge asks the jurors to approach the bench if they have had any personal encounters with victims, or perpetrators of, a violent crime. One after one, the jurors (whose voices are juxtaposed and edited into one track) speak of having family members murdered, their homes broken into, their kin themselves convicted of murdering someone. The sheer magnitude of these experiences, condensed into one track, illustrate the disillusionment these jurors could potentially have with cases of this type. That the judge simply says, “okay” after these testimonies, his acceptance of these facts a steady beating drum behind the testimony, illustrate the violent environment the jurors and judges have become accustomed to. Koenig then invites listeners to make their own judgments of the case, irrespective of what these men and women had concluded.
On a more abstract level, sound – the way people appear to be feeling, based on the cadence and tone of their voices – is used as testimony in Serial’s attempt to reexamine the verdict of the case. This is yet another manner Koenig amasses and investigates evidence outside of typical cases. Koenig inspects how suspect Jay came across to jurors when he testified on the stand, interviewing a juror who heard him testify and found him to “believable.” The juror explained that Jay seemed to struggle in re-telling this story, but that he bravely stood up and did so anyway, for the sake of justice. Koenig opposes this testimony with that of Patrick, one of Jay’s friends who audibly struggles to say whether he thinks his friend was guilty or innocent. Koenig leaves her listeners to make sense of these conflicting reactions as they deeply reconsider the verdict.
Koenig spends much of her investigative attention on how Adnan “sounds” in their weekly conversations, alert for remorse or anger that could inform her understanding of the case. While she does believe Adnan could be innocent “for big reasons, like the utter lack of evidence,” she also believes he could be blameless for “small reasons, things he said to me just off the cuff or moments when he’s cried on the phone and tried to stifle it so I wouldn’t hear.” In “Episode One: The Alibi” she says, that Adnan “is adamant” about not killing Hae, saying to listeners, “You can hear it, right? He’s staunch.” This is how the podcast as a medium can specifically challenge the forensic genre, as it takes the sound quality and earnestness within a voice into account, making it a part of the testimony as listeners reconsider the evidence within the case.
Finally, Koenig becomes a witness to the case, adding firsthand testimony to her and her listeners’ understanding of the trial. She travels to two places – Hae’s burial site in Leakin Park, and the route Adnan travelled the day he allegedly murdered Hae – to create her own testimony that both questions, and adds information to, the 1999 trial. Koenig first travels to Leakin Park to see exactly where the man she calls “Mr. S.” discovered Hae’s body when urinating in the woods. Koenig and her team, positing that the 127 feet Mr. S. traveled was suspiciously far for the sole purpose of urinating, travel there (with a tape measure and recorder in tow). Koenig concludes that 127 feet was not unreasonably far, her tangible and believable audio testimony absolving that man of suspicion. By recording what her footsteps sounded like as she retraced the route of the murderer, the urinating man, and ultimately the police as they discover Hae’s body, she is allowing listeners to become eyewitnesses to the case.
Koenig also replicates the route that Adnan allegedly took to kill Hae Lee Min from Woodlawn High School, addressing the unstated premise that if Adnan could complete this route (And return to track practice on time) then he could have successfully completed the murder according to Jay’s testified timeline. Koenig, along with producer Dana Chivvis, run from the bustling school hallways, to their car, to Best Buy, and back, to see if they can travel the route in the allotted time described in Adnan’s testimony. Koenig, in this recorded scene, becomes a witness in her process to put the 1999 trial back of trial, re-living Jay’s testimony that described where Adnan had been on the day of the murder. And listeners, tuning into this journey, also experience a second-hand investigation of the case. Koenig does discover that this route is indeed possible to travel in the contested time frame (though it is tight). In doing so, Koenig personally inhabits and demonstrates the possibility of his guilt. The process to discover this truth is specific to the podcast medium, establishing deep networks of trust between Koenig and her listening audience. The route was never replicated in the forensic trial (the jurors, rooted to the bench, could never personally experience it), allowing those plugged into the podcast to be more tangibly involved with the case.
On a more abstract level, Koenig frames her narration as if she was a witness to the case. She employs courtroom language while narrating, “confess[ing] to having reasonable doubt Koenig also becomes a witness to the case, passively understanding the trial while actively replicating court proceedings. Koenig intentionally employs courtroom language when narrating: like witnesses in a courtroom, Koenig “confess[es] to having reasonable doubt about whether Adnan killed Hae.” To “confess” in the courtroom is to admit the truth; to “confess” in Serial is to express vulnerability, to connect with the audience members, to establish trust. She similarly states that, “as a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed… But I’m not a juror, so just as a human being walking down the street, what do I think?” Again, she is normalizing her role to one as witness to be on an equal level to her listeners, one that is experiencing the trial alongside them as they challenge the verdict.
Koenig never delivers a final verdict of the case, leaving the listeners to decide for themselves what they think after she has placed the trial on trial. Koenig explains, in the podcast’s final moments, that he wanted “to take the narrative back from the prosecution, just as an exercise, so people could see his case without makeup on, look at it in the eye up close and make their own judgments.” Koenig doesn’t fully honor Adnan’s request, but is rather markedly skeptical, encouraging the listeners of the podcast to then intervene, to pick up the pieces and make sense of the information themselves. She admits in the podcast’s final moments of being as frustrated as ever, hoping that the world will some day know if Adnan’s hands are rightfully in cuffs at the Maryland Correctional Facility. But delivering a verdict of Adnan’s guilt or innocence is not the point of this podcast. This audio medium empowers Koenig to lay out all available information for her listeners, encouraging listeners to foster “reasonable doubt” if case was run properly, to question if the verdict was false seventeen years ago. Though the deluge of information is admittedly chaotic, the eight and a half hours of storytelling a dizzying collection of unanswered questions, it prompts an interest and excitement in the 1999 case.
Serial changes the way that listeners understand the genre of forensic rhetoric. The forensic rhetorical process, as Serial demonstrates, is a highly imperfect one, built on the unstable structure of enthymemes that require listeners to deductively piece together information. Adnan Syed could be guilty (as was declared in the verdict), but the decision could have easily swung in the other direction, declaring him innocent of the murder. Though forensic rhetoric intends to rightfully incarcerate offenders, this genre relies on colored, biased unstated premises that can sway the intentions of the jurors and those making decisions on the case.
While Koenig is specifically critiquing Adnan Syed’s 1999 case, she also hints are greater questions of the entire American legal justice system. Serial then begs the question: if this instance of forensic rhetoric is flawed (depending on the fickle memory and biased endoxa and feeble enthymematic reasoning), couldn’t all court cases be? If truth is a rhetorical construction, can we put so much weight on it in our legal process? Just as deliberative rhetoric in the podcast placed its listeners into the polis to make decisions, forensic rhetoric in Serial situates listeners in the jury to navigate this uncertain space. This podcast rewrites the potential of forensic forms, inviting the listeners to inhabit these juror seats as they themselves interrogate the construction of truth within the courtroom and beyond.