FX series The People v OJ Simpson may be a reminder that fallen stars case was the TV trial, but the 1999 high school murder may be the first truly internet case
As the hearing for Adnan Syed to reopen his case played out in a Baltimore courtroom over the last two weeks, a separate discourse unfolded on the internet as the podcast Serials sometimes obsessive fans followed the case online, dissecting and spoofing every aspect of the case on Twitter, Reddit, and other internet forums.
As a new television series on the OJ Simpson case reminds us that was, in many ways, the television trial, Adnan Syeds might be called the first truly internet case and it is certainly, in the words of Syeds lawyer, Justin Brown, the first open-source case. Which is strange, since Hae Min Lee was actually murdered 17 years ago, in the last millennium, only a few years after Nicole Simpson.
At the time, the case was novel because of the states use of cellphone records about which anyone who followed the recent hearing knows much more than they ever cared to to place Syed at Leakin Park at the time Lee was buried there. But when Sarah Koenig, who worked as a producer with the public radio show This American Life, revisited the story on a 12-episode podcast, the case came screeching back into the public consciousness as the world binge-listened to the now-familiar details of the tragic death that resulted in Syeds arrest and conviction.
Koenig herself was in court last week, listening to Asia Chapman, (her last name was then McClain), testify about listening to Koenigs podcast. Whenever Koenigs name would come up deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah called her a now famous radio journalist she seemed to bury her face deeper in her notebook, at least until she went back to the studio to record updates on the trial (she got a little online flak when she left before the hearing was over to continue with her less popular second season featuring the case of Bowe Bergdahl).
Koenig was not the only person to elevate the cases profile. Rabia Chaudry, who first brought the case to the Serial team, works on Undisclosed, a podcast that continues to sleuth out the case, and will soon publish a book on Syed and the case.
Unlike Koenig, who ended the podcast uncertain as to Syeds innocence or guilt, Chaudry has been a fierce advocate for Syed and his family her brother was a good friend who testified at the first trial in 2000. But on the first day of the hearing last week, Vignarajah insisted that Chaudry might be called as a witness and asked that she be sequestered during testimony, despite the defense teams objections.
But Vignarajah may have inadvertently helped push the viral elements of the case. In exile from the court, Chaudry spent her days in the Dunkin Donuts across the street, tweeting about the case and talking with an HBO crew in town to film the case.
Vignarajah was one of the main targets of the invective of Chaudrys online supporters. Though Chaudry is herself a lawyer, her legal analysis on Twitter was far from nuanced: If I could concisely sum up, in legal terms, the prosecutions strategy for the PCR its this: channel spirit of feces-flinging monkey.
The anti-Vignarajah hashtags began to proliferate, with #ThiruInHaiku attacking his line of questioning in the 5-7-5 syllabic format of the haiku.
Amelia Magritte, a journalist covering the trial for The Frisky, accompanied her exhaustive recaps with unflattering sketches of Vignarajah and states witnesses. One sketch of FBI special agent Chad Fitzgerald shows him with a long, Pinnochio nose, and the words Chad lies sometimes.
Fitzgerald received his own hashtag, #madchad.
In internet forums such as Reddit where the case is exhaustively parsed those who suspect Syed might be guilty are sometimes referred to as guilters as if the position is somehow equivalent to the truthers who believe 9-11 was an inside job.
There was the occassional guilter who took to Twitter to proclaim hes guilty, but all the passion was on the other side.
This online world erupted into the courtroom on Monday when Vignarajah requested that a witness be allowed to testify anonymously after he earned the internet nickname Useless Steve inspiring a hashtag and T-shirt.
Useless Steve was a security guard at the Woodlawn library and the joke came up when a librarian there testified that the guards were useless when dealing with the kids who called them two-and-a-half a reference to the slang that refers to police as five-oh. Within 24 hours, there was a T-shirt for sale online that read: Useless Steve: Always Strive for 2.5. Proceeds went to Syeds defense fund.
Vignarajah called it cyberbullying and in a remarkable move the judge granted the request even though witnesses in other cases face threats to their life or reputation on a regular basis. But after the guards testimony appeared to help Syeds case, rather than Vignarajah, the hashtag was amended to #UsefulSteve.
As judge Martin Welch wrapped up the hearing, he noted it had garnered more attention than any other post-conviction hearing in the state of Maryland. But judging from the internet, that attention and the exhaustive hearing itself did little to change anyones mind.