Serial Podcast Creator and Host Sarah Koenig Says Riveting Cases Are All Around

Sandy Honig
Serial podcast host Sarah Koenig

The wildly popular podcast Serial, created by This American Life creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, doesn't really fit the mold of a true-crime series. It's not about exploring all the ugly facets of a horrible tragedy. It's about the consequences that they create.

"I've never been interested in crime at all," Koenig says. "I'm interested in punishment and judgment. I like a good tale as much as the next guy, but it's not just what I'm into. It's not what I consume as a reader or a watcher. The truth is, what I like are all the boring parts and how do I make the boring parts seem not boring."

Koenig and her team of Peabody Award-winning researchers and reporters, who will be at the Winspear Opera House on Tuesday, investigate every facet of a criminal case with prosecutorial methods and pockets of untold truths. The public radio podcast first took on the murder conviction of then-teenager Adnan Masud Syed, who received a life sentence in a Baltimore court for the 1999 death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, despite an appeal over inadequate representation.

Koenig questioned some of the gaping holes and mysterious circumstances of Syed's prosecution in Serial's first season from the initial investigation that based the changing stories of questionable witnesses to the judicial process and the flimsy evidence that led to Syed's life sentence. The public backlash fueled by the podcast's discoveries prompted a new trial with new evidence and a new series of appeals that's still making its way up the chain of state and federal courts.

The second season took on the high profile case of former Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl's alleged desertion from the U.S. Army during a 2009 tour of Afghanistan. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after leaving his post and spent five years as a prisoner of war in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners held by the U.S. military.

The story of his release started as the return of an American hero, but questions surfaced about the events leading to Bergdahl's capture. Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in 2014 during a general court marshal.

The third season takes a hard look at something much bigger than a single case: the larger apparatus of the criminal justice system.

"We didn't know if it was going to work," Koenig says. "It's super risky because I have no idea what we're going to see and I don't know totally what we're looking for. We said let's just give it a whirl and see and I genuinely did have an open mind."

The third season examines several strange cases from a courtroom in Cleveland, "a year inside a typical American courthouse," according to the podcast's official website. The episodes go through cases with questionable methods and rulings, including a woman who ends up in jail on charges of assaulting a police officer during a fight that started after she was physically sexually harassed by several men in a bar who face no charges and the 2015 death of five-month-old Aavielle Wakefield and the distrust between the community and the police department.

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Serial hosts and investigators Julie Snyder, left, and Sarah Koenig
Elise Bergerson

Koenig says the idea to examine a single courtroom's caseload was inspired by Steve Bogira's book Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse in which Borgia lays out a yearlong investigation and profile of Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse system.

"I can't totally remember what happened, but when we moved on to Season 2, we came back and went, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did it in audio, in a way that's more of a structural decision than a concept,'" Koenig says. "It was more of an intellectual decision than a practical one, but it was also in our heads. You know, when you do these extraordinary cases, you're not really experiencing the day-to-day system at work. We did have this question and I say it in the first episode, 'Boy, you really showed how the criminal justice system works or does it show how our system is broken?'"

Koenig and company spent a year in the Cleveland courtroom examining every case that came across the docket and she was surprised to learn that the stories of questionable justice that the public thinks are extraordinary and rare happen with a shocking amount of regularity.

"I found myself continually surprised, shocked, outraged and amused," she says. "For any reporter, if you trust that if I'm finding this interesting and confusing, that probably means other people will."

There were so many unusual cases worthy of further study and scrutiny that they weren't hard to find. They were so frequent that all Koenig had to do was sit in the courtroom and listen.

"That's the thing we were trying to show in Season 3," she says. "We didn't have to look for weird cases. They're around you all the time. This season, we tried to communicate that we didn't have to sit there for months and months to wait for the perfect case. You can just sit in a courtroom for two or three hours and they come to you. It's not just Cleveland or Ohio. You can walk into any courthouse and it's there."

Serial is a unique mix of investigative journalism and in-depth profiles of real people in some of the worst situations that anyone can imagine. Koenig and her team spend months with the people they interview, and she says it's impossible not to feel something for them.

"I do start to be on someone's side," she says. "I can't help it. That's why it's important to have colleagues and fact checkers to say, 'Wait, what's going on here?'" Koenig says.

The final episode of the season sums up the feelings that even a seasoned reporter can experience, Koenig says. The final two-part story looks at Ohio's juvenile justice system and a man named Joshua, who has been in and out of jail since he was a teenager. Koenig's interviews uncovered a disturbing pattern of misconduct by some of the juvenile correction facility's guards and the needless danger that both guards and prosecutors put him in even after he cooperated with the authorities.

"He needs help," Koenig says about Joshua. "It's not a whodunit. He did hold up three liquor stores. He did it. He committed crimes when he was 15, and the question becomes is this punishment what a 15-year-old deserves, and I was like, I don't think it's well-deserved. I care about him."

Tickets start at $28.