New “Serial” podcast: What does an innocent man have to feel guilty about? Plenty!

November 24, 2014
Reporter Sarah Koenig, producing a new episode of the "Serial" podcast.

Reporter Sarah Koenig, producing a new episode of the “Serial” podcast.

Like 1.5 million other listeners, I’m hooked on a podcast called Serial, produced by the same people who bring us This American Life, the best thing on radio as far as I know. I can’t say what Serial will become during Season 2, but its first season is an engrossing true-crime drama about the murder of a high school student named Hae Min Lee near Baltimore in 1999, and her 17-year-old former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the crime back then and is now serving a life sentence. Adnan, a Pakistani-American and Muslim, is now 32. Adnan appears on the show through taped phone conversations from prison.

Each week reporter Sarah Koenig, a veteran This American Life producer, unfolds the mystery of Adnan’s guilt or innocence by interviewing Adnan and as many key people associated with the case as possible.

Maybe I’m naive or gullible, but I think he’s innocent. And I’m in good company: an “Innocence Project”-type law professor and her team of law students at the University of Virginia reviewed all documentary evidence from the trial and believe, to a person, that Adnan is innocent. And as of the end of Episode 9, Koenig herself said, “I confess to having reasonable doubt about whether Adnan killed Hae. I’m not talking about the courtroom kind; I’m talking about the normal kind.”

But if he’s innocent, that raises a question that has nothing to do with what happened back in 1999. It’s a question that Koenig raised in last week’s episode: “Once, early on, I asked Adnan, ‘If you’re saying you’re innocent, why aren’t you bitter and angry? Why do you sound so calm?'”

Yes! This is a question I’ve had, too, as have—probably—most other listeners. Adnan’s equanimity has been startling, especially when Koenig talks to him about Jay, a former associate who was the state’s star witness against Adnan. To be clear: If Adnan is innocent, Jay lied, and those lies put Adnan in prison.

Again: Why isn’t Adnan angrier about all this?

One possibility, of course, is that Adnan really did kill Hae, so on what basis would he feel indignant? While this seemed distinctly possible early on in the series, it now seems less likely with each passing episode. As I say above, I don’t think he did it. So what else would account for Adnan’s state of mind? Koenig continues:

“I refuse to be miserable,” he said to me. “Being religious helps,” which you hear all the time about people in prison, but I never thought about it too much before I got to know Adnan. When he ended up in prison, he said he made a choice: to be a better Muslim. Now he can say that for nearly half his life, he’s lived like he’s supposed to. He knows it’s a rationalization of his situation, but it’s been the most helpful one.

Finally, he says he’s got a clear conscience because he didn’t kill Hae, though once he did say to me, “I’m here because of my own stupid actions.”

Koenig asked him what he meant by this. Adnan said that if he had been living the way he was supposed to back in 1999—like a “good Muslim,” he said—by which he meant making more responsible lifestyle choices, choosing better friends, and being truthful with his parents—he wouldn’t have put himself in the position of being suspected of the murder.

And while life behind bars isn’t Club Med by a long shot, Adnan is making the best of it. He’s also well-served by his gift for making friends easily.

Adnan told Koenig, “I have a life. It’s not the life I planned or imagined, but I have a life.”

Adnan’s testimony of faith here resonates with me. By all means, I hope that some day he’ll discover the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity. But I identify with him when he says he’s found redemption in prison, that it’s afforded him the opportunity to get his life right with God, at least as he understands God, and that makes prison worthwhile.

Don’t we Christians believe that finding God is worth any cost—including spending our lives in prison, or worse? Aren’t there plenty of Christians in the world right now who have decided that living with God in chains—and even facing martyrdom—is far preferable to living without God, even while remaining ostensibly free?

If life in prison meant eternal life for us, wouldn’t that be a bargain? I’m not saying that I’d relish the thought of paying that price, but you know what I mean.

I’m reminded of that Who song, “Bargain”:

I’d gladly lose me to find you
I’d gladly give up all I had
To find you I’d suffer anything and be glad

I’d pay any price just to get you
I’d work all my life and I will
To win you I’d stand naked, stoned and stabbed

I’d call that a bargain
The best I ever had
The best I ever had

I’m also not surprised that Adnan looks back at his early life with shame for his sins—even while he maintains his innocence about the murder.

To put it another way, even if we haven’t murdered someone, we all stand guilty before God. We all deserve death and hell for our sins. None of us who has come face to face with our sins wants to nitpick about whether our sins are as bad as someone else’s. We know that our sins are bad enough. Left to our own devices, we are lost and hopeless.

The good news is that God doesn’t leave us to our own devices. Instead, he came to us in the flesh, in his Son Jesus, and took upon himself the guilt of our sins and suffered in our place the death and hell that we deserved.

Here’s the Serial website, with all nine available podcasts. A new episode is released every Thursday. (They’re taking a week off for Thanksgiving.) If you decide to check the series out, start with the first episode, which you can download here. It’s also available through whatever app you get podcasts.

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