Lies, Damn Lies and Podcasts

What makes Serial so hypnotic is that you end up kind of believing that Adnan is innocent, while at the same time kind of believing that the witnesses against him are telling the truth too. Maybe not the full truth, granted, but it feels unlikely that everything is a complete fabrication.

And yet, obviously, both of those positions cannot be correct at the same time. Adnan can’t be completely innocent like he claims if Jay is telling even a fraction of the truth. So the listener remains locked in this morbid fascination, looking for a clue, a hint, that will push one of these options off the table completely.

Of all the people discussed in Sarah Koenig’s Serial, the one that has always interested me the most is Jen. I can understand the reasons why Adnan would lie. I can understand the reasons why Jay would lie. But Jen is the one who doesn’t make sense to me. While Jen’s truthfulness doesn’t necessarily mean Adnan is guilty, it is certainly easier to believe in Adnan’s innocence if you can debunk Jen’s testimony.

Plus there were bits about the way Serial presented things that didn’t make sense to me. Why would Jen continue to hang out with someone who involved her in a murder investigation? Why didn’t she know the number of shovels she took Jay to clean off? Why does everyone keep talking about the “consistency” in Jay’s story when that story seems to change every time he tells it?

So I found myself going through the transcription of Jen and Jay’s police interviews and creating timelines of the various accounts of January 13th, 1999. I built a data repository to allow easy manipulation and visualization of each element that you can play with here.

The funny thing is, when people look at the various accounts of the 13th they do so under the assumption that people are telling the truth. Therefore Jen’s testimony of what Jay told her that Adnan told him is given the same weight as Jay’s testimony of what Adnan said when logically it shouldn’t. Third, and fourth hand knowledge, rumor and supposition are much more likely to be where the inaccuracies are, even if the person is honest.

Serial timeline

I could never keep all the various versions of what might have happened on January 13th and where that information came from clear. So I wanted the timelines I built to take into account both THE SOURCE of the information as well as who the information was about. Here’s the visualization of that. You can examine accounts from February 27th (Jen’s interview), February 28th (Jay’s 1st interview), or March 15th (Jay’s second interview) either arranged by person or interview. You can easily filter out one source of information and compare the various timelines against each other to see where the inconsistencies lie.

If you want to build your own visualization of the events of January 13th, you can find the data right here.

As I started breaking down the details of Jay and Jen’s stories in short place and time data points, it cleared up a lot of confusion created by Serial’s storytelling style of reporting: Jen didn’t know how many shovels there were because she was in the car, playing look out while Jay went behind the dumpster to find them, a lot of the large inconsistencies in Jay’s story come from him clearly attempting to keep his friends out of trouble … lies that in context seem less like deceit and more like misplaced loyalty and naiveté. While Jay’s first interview and his second changes up many major details, the core timeline of events remains pretty much the same … even as the state claims different.

But looking at the events of January 13th this way also raised some new questions:

– According to both Jen and Jay, Adnan called Jay at least three times between 1pm and 4pm. Twice on the cellphone and once on Jen’s landline. Jen says the landline call was the third and final call (presumably the notorious “pick me up at Best Buy”), Jay says the landline call was the second call. Obviously there was some reason why the police ruled out this information, but it’s interesting as a hypothetical nevertheless. If this important call came through the landline, then it’s possible the murder took place later– at a time consistent with Jay’s testimony rather than where the state tried to cram it in.

– The Patapsco Park bit comes originally from Jen. According to Jen, Jay leaves a message for her asking for a pickup at a park around 7pm. Jen isn’t sure what he means, calls him back for clarification, gets Adnan who claims “Jay is busy”. According to her he sounds high at the time. When the police press Jen for the name of the park she can’t remember exactly what it’s called (or rather the person doing the transcript couldn’t understand her), but the cross streets she gives indicatePatapsco.

Ritz: Where’s that located?

Jen: On [inaudible] Park Road

Ritz: Where’s that, is that Baltimore County?

Jen: Yeah, it’s off of Crosby and Chesworth I believe.

There are so many interesting possibilities here: Jen has already admitted she wasn’t sure if she understood where Jay wanted to get picked up … perhaps Jay really was in Patapsco Park at some point that day … perhaps Jay– young and naturally skeptical of the police– made up the bit about Patapsco in order to better match Jen’s misunderstood account of things because he assumed if their stories didn’t match up the police wouldn’t believe him.

– In Jen’s interview she says Jay dropped Adnan off at some girl’s house some point after picking him up from Best Buy (4ish maybe) … that’s such a weird detail to get wrong. Weirder still that it supposedly happened around the time of the Nisha call. Now, I’m not saying Jay dropped Adnan off at Nisha’s because that would be absolutely impossible given the geography, but it stood out to me for some reason.

– According to Jen, Cathy didn’t know about the murder until the day before Jen’s interview. Jen also makes no mention of Adnan hanging out with them at Cathy’s house which makes way more sense to me than this fantastic idea that Jay, Jen, Cathy and Cathy’s boyfriend Jeff have all heard Adnan has killed his girlfriend and yet still have no qualms about hanging out with him.

– There are points in Jay’s interview where he seems like he is trying to protect Jen by putting distance between them. For example he originally identifies Jen’s house as the house of her brother, and speaks about Jen the way one would speak about the sibling of a relative one barely knows.

Ritz: Okay When you arrive at [Jen’s brother] house, what do you do?

Jay: Sit down, video game out.

Ritz: Who was home at that time?

Jay: Just me and [Jen’s brother]

Ritz: Do you recall what time you arrived at the house?

Jay: No, not exactly. I know a little while his sister came in the house.

Ritz: And who is his sister?

Jay: Jen

Ritz: And how old is Jen?

Jay: Excuse me, I think she’s eighteen.

Ritz: and how old is [Jen’s brother].

Jay: 15

The more I read of the transcripts the more I think the general story Jay is telling is true but that he fiddles with the details in order to improve his position. Either to protect his friends, minimize his own involvement, or to improve the state’s case. I don’t think he made the whole thing up under police pressure, but I could buy the idea that he made up the bits about Adnan repeatedly telling him he was going to kill Hae Lee before the 13th in order to support premeditation.

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