Episode 10 of “Serial,” the acclaimed podcast series created by narrator Sarah Koenig and sponsored by This American Life, offers useful insights into the ways that cultural and racial biases attach to cases in the criminal justice system. The episode went live yesterday, December 4, and is available at http://serialpodcast.org/.
Though it’s best to start listening at Episode 1 (this post doesn’t contain spoilers if you know the basic premise of the series), the first 15 minutes of this week’s episode can be appreciated in isolation for its exposition of cultural influences on the case. Koenig details how the main character’s Muslim and Pakistani identities played a role in various proceedings from the state’s investigation to bail hearings to jury deliberations at trial.
For instance, at defendant Adnan Syed’s bail hearing, prosecutor Vickie Wash suggested that he could “tap resources from Pakistan” so that issuing bail was equivalent to issuing Adnan “a passport… to flee the country.” Wash described “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistan males have been jilted, have committed murder, and have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.” In asserting this, she cited information she received from a legal analyst at the Department of Justice. She also cited a recent Chicago case with facts “frighteningly similar” to Adnan’s in which the defendant had fled the country. She claimed that the state’s investigation had revealed that Adnan had an “uncle in Pakistan who could make people disappear.”
Sarah Koenig says she looked through the state’s files for facts to support the assertion that Adnan had such an uncle and found that Adnan’s science teacher was the witness who provided that information to police. It was an otherwise uncorroborated piece of evidence.
After Adnan’s attorneys uncovered other problems with the state’s arguments at the bail hearing, the prosecutor wrote a letter apologizing to the court for misconstruing certain information and possibly leading the court astray. She admitted that when she spoke to the Department of Justice after the hearing, the legal analyst denied any such pattern of killings by Pakistani men. She also admitted that in fact the case in Chicago had very little in common with Adnan’s case at all.
Finally, according to Koenig, at both the bail hearing and in the letter to the judge, Wash completely overlooked the fact that Adnan is not Pakistani. He is American with Pakistani heritage.
Cultural biases showed up again in Adnan’s trial when the prosecution made much of his Muslim identity – suggesting Adnan’s motive for killing his ex-girlfriend was grounded in pride rather than love, that his “honor was besmirched” when the victim broke up with him, and that her murder was a sort of honor killing.
Koenig has reason to believe that this framing of the case may have come from a report written by a consultancy that “helps law enforcement understand other cultures.” The report was commissioned by the police investigating the case. It suggested that for Adnan’s ex-girfriend to have a new boyfriend “dishonored both Anand Syed and his belief structure.” It concluded:
“It is acceptable for a Muslim man to control the actions of a woman by completely eliminating her… Within this harsh culture, he has not violated any code, he has defended his honor… For many ethnic Pakistanis, incidents like this are commonplace and in Pakistan, this would not have been a crime but probably a question of honor.”
Again, the report completely ignored the fact that Adnan is not from Pakistan.
So how do these emphases on Adnan’s cultural heritage impact the jury’s decision at trial? Listen to Episode 10 to find out.