How Serial Highlights Our Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

Does America’s skepticism of the legal system begin and end with a podcast?

Americans celebrate our country as a “nation of laws.” Over 12 episodes, however, a single podcast has illuminated just how flawed America’s legal system actually is. Serial, the current American pop cultural phenomenon, proves that we are in fact a nation of mostly reasonable laws applied imperfectly by imperfect people. And that’s not good enough.

Serial comes to an end this week. A spinoff of This American Life, it’s a real-life whodunit murder mystery reported by Sarah Koenig and explores the complicated case of Adnan Syed, a man convicted of murdering of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 when the two were teenagers.

The case against Syed is confounding. It’s messy and incomplete. After a full year (much longer than most criminal trials) with the full benefit of experts, researchers, transcripts from two trials and more than a decade of distance, Koenig says she still has questions about Syed’s guilt. In fact, the case, as it’s reported in Serial, is so full of twists, turns and unanswered questions that Reddit designed a page to collect the discussions of theories about what happened to Lee. Nevertheless, the conviction against Syed stands and one can’t help but wonder, “Is this what justice looks like?”

In an editorial for The Washington Post, Bronx public defender Sarah Lustbader wrote about some of the questionable events in Syed’s trial and how common they are in the criminal justice system—conflicts of interest, details not shared between defense attorneys and prosecutors, guilty pleas made out of hopelessness.

When Serial is placed in the context of the criminal justice system as a whole, one can’t help but think of the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island that applied the rule of law to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers and declined to indict. Those cases have raised doubts about the legitimacy of police practices and our courts.

When the non-indictment in Ferguson was announced, many Americans were incredulous, horrified, bewildered by the reality of our legal system. President Obama reminded us soon after that we “are a nation built on the rule of law.” He said the same after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin and in recent remarks on immigration and deportation policy.

But what about those laws? What about our legal system?

It would seem to me that America can aim a little higher than just being a nation of laws. Having a legal system and putting people through it isn’t good enough. The case profiled through Serial, and so many others that highlight the cracks in the criminal justice system, should push us to reexamine the system.

We can be more than a nation of laws. Let’s become a just nation.

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