It’s time for the battle of the serial podcasts! And by “serial podcasts” I don’t mean the two seasons of the podcast Serial, or podcasts that come out more than once, but serial podcasts about Serial, because the internet has made recursion an art form.
There are two podcasts about Sarah Koenig’s documentary series that I’ve tried, and one I would say is essential listening. The other one, not so much. Both are entirely focused on the first season of Serial and the story of Adnan Syed.
Let’s start with Undisclosed, which for now is subtitled “The State v. Adnan Syed.” This podcast was started by Rabia Chaudry, who you may recognize from Serial as the woman who brought Syed’s story to Koenig, and she’s joined by a law professor and a practicing lawyer, Colin Miller and Susan Simpson. That’s the real strength of Undisclosed, rather than just speculating about the law this podcast features the opinions of people who have a deep knowledge of the legal issues at play. It’s refreshing.
Undisclosed’s mission has been to go through the entire investigation and trial of Adnan Syed with a fine-toothed comb. They don’t have the narrative polish of Serial, and to some extent that means that they’re correcting omissions and mistakes that were inherent to Serial’s format. They’ve also dropped some bombshells — they’ve established beyond a shadow of a doubt that day of the wrestling match Hae Min Lee missed and the day Lee disappeared were, despite the prosecution’s theory of the case, two different days. And there’s a point around episode 11 where they prove that the tip that initially led police to Adnan was paid for, and if that person also testified at the trial (a further bombshell suggests that person did), then that should have been disclosed to the defense but never was. Undisclosed has also dived deep into prosecutorial misconduct and the possible ineffective assistance of counsel on the part of Cristina Gutierrez.
I have a harder time recommending Truth & Justice with Bob Ruff. T&J started out as a podcast that summarized all the other podcasts about Serial (so a serial podcast covering serial podcasts about Serial podcast), but it’s developed into a more general investigation and theory show. Bob Ruff is interesting to listen to, and it’s not a big surprise that he recently announced he’s going to quit his day job as a fire chief to podcast full time. The problem I have with T&J is that it’s become a vehicle for trying to prove Don (Lee’s ex-boyfriend) may be the murderer. I don’t think there’s nearly enough evidence to point to that, and though Ruff denies having any bias many, many, many times, I just feel like we shouldn’t be trying to correct one injustice by unjustly accusing someone else.
To be sure, T&J has turned up some interesting information, for example that Don’s alibi, in the form of timecards, may have been created retroactively. However, it’s also obvious that the prosecutors in Adnan’s case were bugging Don for something to prove his alibi (I guess because they didn’t want the defense having any other plausible suspects to bring up at trial), so I’m not sure the timecards prove much beyond someone wanting to please an authority figure. Ruff also finds it sinister that Don’s fond recollections of his relationship with Lee that he gave to Serial seem to be at odds with interviews he gave immediately after Lee’s murder, when he suggested their relationship was not all that serious. I don’t find it strange that over a decade and a half someone might romanticize their relationship with another person who was unexpectedly murdered. Making a big deal about small, inconsequential details like this reminds me a lot the Jack the Ripper suspect theory books I’ve read.
Ruff’s bias also showed in a recent episode about Ronald Lee Moore, who was described on Serial as a serial killer who might be a suspect in Lee’s death. Ruff’s description of Moore and his crimes is designed to downplay that possibility, and I think too blatantly so. Ruff disputes Moore’s description as a serial killer, which may be technically true in the sense that Moore was only convicted of killing one woman, but we also know he beat another victim almost to death so if he wasn’t a serial killer, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He certainly was a violent serial rapist and burglar. Ruff also expresses what I call the “vampire fallacy,” the idea that serial killers are like movie vampires who operate by rules they are incapable of breaking. All of Moore’s known victims were attacked indoors, so Ruff assumes that he would never attack a woman in a car. I’d argue that Moore, as a burglar/rapist/murderer, was probably more opportunistic than Ruff thinks, and could ambush a teen alone in a car if he got a chance. Ruff also argues that Moore’s overriding goal was robbery, but we know Moore was bringing a cattle prod with him on his burglaries, so it’s safe to assume that money wasn’t his only goal.
One interesting similarity Undisclosed and Truth & Justice have at this late date is that they’re both promising to eventually start covering cases other than Adnan Syed’s. We may be entering a new age of true crime journalism using a media that was unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.