Despite the fact it is something of a busman’s holiday, like so many others, I am enthralled by the Serial podcast. For the uninitiated, a young man, Adnan Syed, is currently serving a life sentence for strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, one day after high school let out. From prison Adnan maintains his innocence, and each week we hear the journalist investigate a different strand of the case. She interviews witnesses, re-constructs the alleged route, chats to the defendant on the phone and, most interesting, struggles to work out whether or not she believes him.
In the second episode, she captures beautifully one of the difficulties of working on miscarriages of justice:
“All of this information, every scrap, for whatever side you are on — it’s spin. And the trouble with spin is that you can’t disregard it. Because swirling around somewhere inside, some tendril is true.”
By the time a case file lands on my desk, it often runs to thousands of pages. With the help of some powerful IT software and a small army of volunteers, we try and strip the case back to its bare bones, to the hard facts, to find those tendrils of truth.
It is not as easy as it sounds. Take this scenario — the victim was shot on a residential street. In living rooms around the area Coronation Street was almost over when the residents report hearing the gunshot. The first 999 call was made at 10:49 am. How many minutes before the call did the gun go off? How long did it take the first caller to run down three flights of stairs and cross the street to find the victim? Is the caller in good shape? Are we sure he didn’t take the lift?
Perhaps the shot was fired at 10:45 — ish? In that case, the defendant couldn’t have done it because his car was caught on CCTV a few blocks away at 10:49, and he couldn’t have got there so quickly. Unless there was a green light and no traffic, and there is always traffic on that street, right?
We are talking about a handful of minutes. One car, two men, an area with 100m radius dotted with CCTV cameras, cell site masts and half a dozen eye witnesses all of which need to be combed through to find those elusive tendrils.
This is both the best and the most frustrating job in the world.
If you like Serial and are enjoying playing detective, or perhaps you are a criminal law nut, or maybe you want to read about the impact of the legal aid cuts on the justice system, then you should bookmark this page.
Inspired by our work at the Centre for Criminal Appeals investigating and litigating miscarriages of justice cases, we will make regular posts about our experiences working alongside prisoners and their families fighting for their liberty, reaching out for those tendrils of truth that will clear their names.