In both specific instances and in terms of the larger arc of the narrative, the show provides opportunities to reflect on the nature of the criminal justice system in the U.S. A specific incidence occurs in episode 7 when host Sarah Koenig encounters Deirdre Enright from The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law. Deirdre tells her that "first thing they do...is to give Adnan back the presumption of innocence." Sarah in turn observes that, "It’s kind of a profound thing when you think about it. It’s supposed to happen the first time around, at trial. But it seems like no one in the profession really believes that it does. Because you can’t help it, as a juror you figure the guy sitting behind the defense table must have done something wrong."
In terms of the overall arc of the story, it's hard not to consider that if the goal of the justice system is in fact justice, the system is set up in an odd manner. Begin with the obvious. As a defendant, it is the state against you. You may hire your own lawyer if you are able to afford one or you may be assigned a defense lawyer who is an employee of the state. In defending yourself, you are defending yourself against a state-employed prosecuting attorney as well as the police department or other agency investigating the crime. Victory for the state is prosecution - whether or not that involves actually "solving the case" (i.e., justice). You present your case potentially to a jury of your peers who are supposed to presume your innocence (see above) but definitely a judge - who is also an employee of the state. The long-term relationships of the judge will be with the other employees of the state (the lawyers and the police department). A stacked deck?
Now, you may very well object that this is a biased interpretation. That's fair, but the title of this post is "A Libertarian Reflection on Serial," after all. This is more than an abstract point of political philosophy, though. It may be true that one can interpret the nature of the justice system in a variety of ways, but there are some facts that led weight to the interpretation that the system is not functioning in our best interests. "The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails," notes The Sentencing Project, "a 500% increase over the past thirty years."
You might also object that in the case of Hae Min Lee, this was a murder and someone needs to be found guilty. Again, that's fair, but violent crimes such as this only represent a portion of cases. Consider this: "Violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. Violent crime rates had been relatively constant or declining over those decades. The prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and lengthening time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, 'three strikes' laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release. 49 percent of sentenced state inmates were held for violent offenses. Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national 'War on Drugs.' The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980."
"Serial" should be commended for providing such an inside look into the inner workings of the justice system and prompting what should be a national conversation about the nature and direction criminal justice in the U.S. Libertarian or not, it is worth asking about the negative consequences of our current system and what we can do to improve the situation.
Check out some of the links below for more information:
American Friends Service Committee
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Prison Policy Initiative
The Sentencing Project
The Stop Mass Incarceration Network