March 4, PRAGUE—This is the second piece that comes out as a part of the political-article series on the topic of whistleblower journalists aka the ‘Whistleblower Series’. In their articles, our writers take their time to reflect on ethical and legal struggles of whistleblowing information for public interest using concrete examples of journalists who have been considered whistleblowers.
How does one person tell 80 million citizens of the United States that their trust in the judicial system should be challenged? Simple. You reveal one incident where the criminal system failed and sentenced a potentially innocent teenager to life in solitary confinement. At least, that’s what Sarah Koenig did in October 2014 giving her an international platform by telling the story of two teenagers, Hae Min Lee and Adnan Masud Sayed.
For the parents of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student murdered in a probable act of homicide, they were desperate for closure. They wanted the trial to be quick, the sentence to be swift, and their grieving to be private, and they got all that they wanted. Yet, a look back at the way the United State’s Justice System handled the case, was it too quick? Was the case resolved correctly? Did the defendant get his case heard or were the jurors just looking for someone to blame?
These are the questions Sarah Koenig answers for the listeners of the widely influential podcast Serial in which she tells the story of two teenagers with both equally horrifying ends. Hae Min Lee was the girlfriend of Adnan Sayed, convicted for life for possibly murdering Hae Min Lee with no evidence, no witnesses, and without a retrial.
Producer Sarah Koenig attacks the flaws of the United States Justice System and the way the lawyer for the defendant handled the case in an enticing way for all listeners. She puts the listener in Adnan’s doomed situation by telling the story in a way which puts us in his shoes, and she dismantles our perception of security in the judicial system because almost anyone can end up in an unfortunate scenario.
The lawyer appointed to Adnan’s case, Cristina Gutierrez, refused a plea bargain for Adnan and did very little to prove Adnan’s innocence. She was later disbarred from practising law. However, this still left Adnan to live in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. But what if Adnan been appointed a different lawyer or had the courts upheld their promise to provide true justice then things may have gone vastly different.
This is the kind of whistleblowing Sarah reveals, how can someone in such a vulnerable state be able to say that they’re being misrepresented in the judicial system? If this one case could have been mishandled so terribly, what other cases in the justice system have put innocent lives in confinement for life. Are there more victims of the justice department living life in prison because of the failure of the courts, or someone to do their job? This is exactly the topic which Koenig blows the whistle on. From local criminal courts in small towns, like Baltimore in this case, to the Supreme Court in America where the retrial ended up. Listeners of the podcast were so enraged they brought the attention to Washington on the premise that there are major fallacies in the justice department.
But why and how? Essentially what Sarah Koenig did was dismantle the American perspective of security by telling a story of one scenario where the justice system failed. The way Sarah tells the case, puts the listener in Adnan’s place, leading us to question what if that were me? What if the courts didn’t really care where I ended up just as long as the case was closed and families had someone to point a finger at? Then who would speak up for me, would I be able to get a retrial or would I end up innocent in jail, just like Adnan?
In telling the story, Sarah respects ethical restraints by reminding those on her phone calls that she is recording them and will use it publicly. She never points fingers, but rather gives a platform for different voices on her show to appear from both perspectives on Adnan’s innocence. She refrains from slander and misrepresentation of Adnan or any of the victims involved in the case on her show.
As far as legal rights for the show are concerned, the listeners of the show are the ones that actually brought about change, and who pressed further for courts to look into Adnan Syed’s case. This is a clear example of whistleblowing because Sarah has given to her platform a voice that wouldn’t have had a chance of revealing himself innocent. There needs to be proof and evidence for someone to be committed to a life sentence. If this is not the case, then the American people listening to this podcast, cannot trust the courts and will never have closure.
The parents of Hae, friends, and people in the community wanted closure for Hae’s murder, and they trusted the judicial system in providing them with justice. But at what cost is our need for closure being sacrificed with? Are we really innocent until proven guilty, or if needed, can the evidence be mishandled by the people selected to protect us?
Written by Brittney Pilarcik.