"Investigation is like tennis," says Richard Plansky, the Executive Managing Director and head of operations in the Americas of K2 Intelligence, an international investigations outfit. "Everyone can pick up a tennis racket and hit a tennis ball. But very few people can be Roger Federer."
As a prosecutor at the Manhattan's DA office during the '90s (when New York, he says, "was a much different city"), Plansky worked on homicides and sex crimes-cases not unlike the murder of Hae Min Lee.
Plansky says that amateurs can, on the occasion, be helpful to an investigation. But they can also do more harm than good, and sometimes that harm is irreparable.
"There's a lot of trade craft here that, typically, amateur detectives don't understand," he said. "And there are also ethical and legal restrictions that amateur detectives aren't even aware of." In states like New York, conducting an unlicensed private investigation is a criminal offense. If one doesn't follow the law, any evidence gathered may be inadmissible, or else tainted.
"This is why we have the police, this is why we have federal law enforcement authorities, this is why we have federal and state prosecutors," Plansky said. "This is what they do; this is what they're trained to do. They have the tools to do it that the average person does not have. While I think it's important for everybody as citizens to do their job - meaning if they're witnesses to crime, to assist the authorities in any way they can — I don't think it's their jobs to actually conduct the investigations."
Another Serial moderator I spoke with, PowerOfYes (as a working lawyer in Australia, she asked not to be identified), told me that for the most part, Redditors weren't actually bringing much new evidence to the table. But the way she sees it, the debates and arguments of the subreddit weren't just a matter of idle curiosity, but an act of civic engagement.
"A murder is a crime against a state, not a crime against person," she said. "That's the basis on which we prosecute people. And if you are a prosecutor, you appear on behalf of the state, and that means you appear on behalf of us." To PowerOfYes, the idea that the Reddit discussions didn't have legitimacy because they involved amateurs, or that the debate over the particularities of the case somehow diminishes the memory of Hae Min Lee, is wrong. "I don't think it's right to turn away from it when you have a chance to scrutinize how the system works. It's like voting. You shouldn't vote if you don't take even a little bit of interest in what you're voting for."
As for whether she expects the same level of civic engagement (or plain old obsession) to persist now that the show's first season has come to a close, she's doubtful. Though she'll be monitoring the subreddit — as a lawyer, she's interested in the legal and systemic issues in play — she says she'd be surprised if by January there was much activity on the site at all. Even though Adnan still sits in a Maryland prison, there's no reason for anyone except the hardcore to come back to the subreddit. "Now that the show's over," she said, "there's nothing new to discover."
Not that there haven't been efforts made to create a more lasting legacy. A few days before the podcast's final episode, moderators on the subreddit launched the Woodlawn High School Scholarship Fund, which would provide academic funding to students currently attending Lee's school. It's an attempt by an ephemeral community to make a lasting impact. Or as White told me, "There was an outcry from people that wanted to do something positive — people wanted to counteract the distastefulness of consuming other people's tragedies for their own entertainment." To date, the fund has drawn just $3,200 in donations, or 12 percent of its $25,000 goal.
For many, the intrigue was as much about Koenig's telling of the case as it was about the crime itself. Without the podcast, interest is bound to drop off. "I'm sure we'll see a lot of our regular users move on," White told me. "I could see people hanging out for about a week."
"No one was happy when Breaking Bad ended, but it just has to happen," White said. "Maybe it's a little distasteful to compare true crime to a piece of entertainment fiction. But podcasts, to be honest, are a combination of a news venue and an entertainment medium. And people consume this podcast in particular the same way they consume entertainment."
White said he didn't have very strong convictions about the nature of the case, and wasn't terribly invested in finding out whether Syed was innocent or guilty. While he likes the idea of a wrongfully convicted murderer finally finding justice, he's not certain whether that's the case here, or whether it was just a good narrative. Still, even before this season of Serial wrapped up, he was already looking forward to the next one.
"I'm a listener of a podcast," he told me. "That's all there is. I'm not an investigator. I'm not Sarah Koenig."