On Jan. 13, 1999, high school senior and star athlete Hae Min Lee was reported missing to the Baltimore police department.
A month later, her body was found in Leakin Park. Cause of death: strangulation.
Police soon arrested Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, a fellow student at Woodlawn High School. Syed was tried and convicted for first-degree murder. He has been in prison ever since.
But after 15 years of incarceration, Syed’s case gained national attention with the October 2014 release of a podcast called “Serial.” Hosted by Sarah Koenig, an American radio producer turned investigative reporter, it became the first podcast ever to win a Peabody Award for exceptional journalism. And CBS reports that the series has been downloaded more than 68 million times.
“Serial” fever has spread to SAS too. “I’d admit that I’m truly not a fan of the genre of mystery,” senior Lisa Hussey said, “but when it came to Serial, I could not stop listening to one episode of the podcast after another.”
Junior Erika Dinsmore agreed, describing it as a no-frills “crime show” that was “truly giving us the facts and letting the audience decide.” Both students highly recommended the series.
I decided to hop on the bandwagon and give it a try. Fifteen minutes into the pilot episode, I was hooked. While my friends were binge-watching Netflix, I spent Chinese New Year break binge-listening to a real life crime story. I’d finish one installment convinced that Syed was guilty as charged, only to learn new evidence of his innocence in the next. Koenig’s masterful narration kept me on edge and dying to know more.
The final episode (#12) left me with a sinking feeling: Serial’s first season was over, but Adnan Syed’s story was not. Desperate for answers, I turned to the subreddit where thousands of wannabe sleuths like myself were discussing the case for/against Syed. Yet there were so many theories about his role in the murder that all seemed equally plausible. The more I read, the less sure I felt.
Then, in April, I discovered this sitting in the #3 spot on iTunes.
“We are not journalists or podcasters. We’re three lawyers who are interested in the minute details of the case of the State versus Adnan Syed. We like getting into the weeds, and we plan on taking you with us. This is not going to be a beautifully crafted narrative like ‘Serial,’ but it will be a run down many rabbit holes in the case.”
So begins “Undisclosed,” a spin-off podcast that plans to dissect the 1999 legal case against Syed in the context of new evidence – and hopefully answer some of the burning questions that Serial didn’t resolve.
One of its creators is Rabia Chaudry, the attorney and family friend who introduced the case to radio producer Sarah Koenig. When I first heard this, I was skeptical. Chaudry knew Adnan when he was a child and has always believed in his innocence. How could we trust her to give us an impartial account?
But Chaudry admits her bias right off the bat. It’s precisely why she hired two other lawyers, Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, to help with the investigation.
They are quick to clarify that “this podcast is not Serial: Part Two…but having said that, if you actually haven’t heard Serial, you have to go back and listen to that before you start listening [to ours].” In other words, “Undisclosed” assumes you have enough background knowledge to understand references like the Nisha call and the trip to Cathy’s.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t love at first listen.
Content-wise, the pilot episode was detailed but disorganized. The lawyers wanted to analyze theories about Syed’s whereabouts on the day of the murder. To do this, they reviewed conflicting testimonies from a whole slew of witnesses – Debbie, Christa, Asia, Coach Sye, Jay, Cathy and Syed himself – yet they never gave the listener more than a few seconds’ pause before moving on to their next point. Not even Colin Miller’s last-minute recap could save listeners from the abyss of information overload.
As far as production quality goes, “Undisclosed” again fell short of the bar set by its predecessor, though this was no surprise. Koenig was an experienced producer backed by the same team behind the popular podcast “This American Life,” whereas none of the hosts on “Undisclosed” had any prior experience with radio. At times, both Chaudry and Simpson spoke so fast it was tough to catch what they were saying.
But by Episode 2, the pacing had improved. I also found the narrative of Hae’s day much easier to follow. Chaudry started with an overview of background information, then announced the goal for the episode: piecing together Hae’s schedule and figuring out out the last person to see her alive. True to their word, the lawyers deliver a convincing analysis of the evidence – as well as surprising news on what did / didn’t happen on January 13.
Despite its flaws (and a rocky start), “Undisclosed” shows promise. For starters, the lawyers have decided to disclose some of the primary source documents that they discuss in their investigation. Scanned witness statements, police notes and even Syed’s schedule from 1999 can be found on their website.
And it gets better. Every other week, the podcasters release a mini-episode (called an Addendum) providing the latest updates on the case, as well as answers to fans’ questions. That’s right. Avid listeners can tweet their thoughts to @Undisclosedpod, and a lucky few might even get featured on the next Addendum.
“Serial” brought Syed’s story into the spotlight, but “Undisclosed” promises to put it under the microscope. And I, for one, am ready to hear what next week’s episode will reveal.
“Undisclosed” is available on iTunes.
(But if you haven’t listened to “Serial,” we suggest you do that first.)