It was supposed to be a mental lull for Serial devotees and conspiracy theorists, before the gap between podcast fandom and real life court system machinations collided. Serial closed its 12-episode season with Sarah Koenig telling us Adnan Syed shouldn’t have been convicted, though she didn’t say he was innocent. In January, an appeal hearing will determine whether he qualifies for post-conviction relief. We were left to chew this all over.
Then Jay spoke.
This week, in an interview with The Intercept, Jay Wilds came forward with his account of the January day in 1999 when Hae Min Lee was murdered. But does this change the way we think about him, the enigma who at best gave inconsistent testimony and at worst helped put an innocent teen behind bars? Koenig never comes remotely close to articulating this latter option, but the thought has probably crossed every listener’s mind (and certainly is a theory espoused over Reddit).
Jay’s silence was deafeningly loud during the course of Serial. Koenig approached Jay, but he never let her record him. “It was a tense meeting, and an emotional meeting, in fact. Afterwards, Julie and I felt like we’d walked into a stranger’s house, lobbed a grenade onto his living room carpet and then waved goodbye,” Koenig says in Episode 8, “The Deal with Jay.” She adds that they continued to email, but “finally, in so many words, he declined to be interviewed.”
But Jay appeared to change his mind after the series ended. On December 23, he posted on his Facebook profile that he was ready to be interviewed “to answer the question of the people who I hope are concerned with the death of Hae Min Lee (the person who’s paid the ultimate price for Entertainment)” and “to out this so called reporter for who she truly is.”
It’s unsurprising that Jay, as he reveals in part 1 of the interview, is pissed at the way he came across in Serial. Adnan is far more likeable than Jay because we hear directly from him. To listeners, Adnan is a real human while Jay remains an abstract figure. Jay is hard to empathize with and his silence suggests that, yeah, something is up.
The thing is, it is well documented that Koenig wanted to have Jay’s voice. Jay chose not to talk. That is his prerogative.
In all fairness to Jay, he told The Intercept that he never expected to be a major figure in Serial. He thought he was going to be “a little blurb.” Hell, he says Koenig never referred to it as Serial or even as a podcast. He had no idea it was going to be a 12-part series over three months (and, obviously, he had no idea it would become the most downloaded podcast of all time). Still, since Serial grooms listeners to question and distrust every person’s account, I was wary that Jay was chiming in with his two cents now that the series had closed and he knew what rumors and claims he needed to address. Was he just trying to buy sympathy now?
More importantly, was he going to add to our understanding of Hae’s murder? What about the content, the facts, the evidence? As Adnan says: “I want to shoot myself, if I hear someone else say, I don’t think he did it ‘cause you’re a nice guy. I would love someone to hear, I would to hear love someone to say, I don’t think that you did it because I looked at the case and it looks kind of flimsy.” Does Jay quell any of our suspicions or change our opinion of Hae’s murder trial or Adnan’s conviction?
The short answer: no. Serial devotees rushed to point out the major inconsistencies between the account Jay gives in 2014 and the testimony he provided in 1999. Many of these are excusable. Koenig does an excellent job of showing how shitty humans are at remembering things and how easy it is for our minds to garble basic facts.
Some of the things that Jay lied about to the cops actually make a ton of sense. For example, he says he lied to the cops when he said Adnan showed him Hae’s body outside of Best Buy; it was actually in front of his grandmother’s home, but “I didn’t want to involve my grandmother,” he says. That’s more than understandable. Jay also impresses upon the reader how scared he was of the cops as a weed dealer, one that was running a fairly elaborate operation rather than managing a few nickel bags. He stresses over and over again during the interview that he was convinced the cops would nail him for drugs eventually and that Adnan held Jay’s pot dealings over him to force him into being an accessory to Hae’s murder.
That explanation is believable…but increasingly less so when you hear Jay talk about the nature of his relationship with Adnan.
“There was never a real friendship. I only smoked with him two or three times. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re down in the park, come on down.’ We were friendly, we were cool. I might have sat next to him in a class, and joked or something. But he didn’t call me unless he needed something.”
Adnan also never describes himself as especially close with Jay, which begs the question: Why would Adnan choose Jay of all people to help him out with a murder? Interviews in Serial (including ones from Adnan) do acknowledge that Jay was known as a resident bad boy at Woodlawn High School. If you were going to commit a crime, he would potentially be more knowledgeable than the rest—or at least a high school kid might think that. Plus, his known drug dealings certainly made him vulnerable to blackmail. At the same time, it’s still hard not to wonder why someone would choose an acquaintance who owes him no real allegiance to be the accessory and confidante to a murder?
Aside from the arguably significant timeline discrepancies put forth by Jay, his perception of Adnan and Hae’s relationship is dramatically different from the way it was described by Hae in her diary, as well as Adnan and Don, Hae’s boyfriend at the time. Jay believes Adnan was bitterly angry at Hae. “It was at least a week before she died, when he found out she was either cheating on him or leaving him,” Jay says in the interview. “We were in the car, we were riding, smoking. He just started opening up. It’s in the evening after school, we never hung out in the morning. Just normal conversation like, ‘I think she’s fucking around. I’m gonna kill that bitch, man.’” That really doesn’t match up to what the other three have said. Hae and Adnan were broken up since December, and Adnan and Don worked together when Hae’s car got in an accident. By three accounts, everyone was cordial, and the breakup wasn’t really new.
Mentally, it’s hard to compare Jay’s account of events after we’ve gained a certain picture that has been corroborated by multiple sources. It’s not that I don’t believe Jay. It’s just that even if you do take his word, it doesn’t jive with what we know. It only contributes to the fuzzy timeliness and general obscure picture of the day’s events that was already presented in Serial. Jay’s voice doesn’t shed light on the murder; it just adds to the accepted confusion.
That said, the second part of Jay’s interview does provide tremendous insight into his decision not to speak with Koenig. His account of what it was like to see Koenig show up at his home and hear about her hitting up his friends is chilling:
“I could also tell that she was uncomfortable talking to me. Her lips were quivering, and I just felt like she was lying…It was confusing because they also pitched this story to me as a documentary, and they wanted to put me on video. By this time my wife was getting real upset. Our kids were crying.”
Some of this isn’t quite fair. Jay doesn’t give any proof that Koenig was lying, and she herself describes their encounter very apologetically and with respect for his desire not to be recorded.
Yet, she also doesn’t set the emotional scene of Jay’s family life suddenly getting interrupted. Because Jay doesn’t seem quite like a real person in Serial, it is easy to forget how jarring this podcast must have been for him and how it upturned not only his life, but his wife and children’s—and also his friends’ lives.
“I heard from a few people that [Koenig] was harassing people at their jobs, making countless phone calls [to people] who kept saying they did not want to speak with her. I was talking to one of my friends, who had just recently gotten over a drug addiction, who she tried to talk to about this case. He told me it was really painful for him, and he didn’t want to go back and revisit this crap.”
You can understand why Jay didn’t trust Koenig. He describes asking her for a business card, a pretty basic form of professional identification, and her failure to produce an accurate one. He also describes how he felt Koenig was on the offensive. “She kept saying, ‘It’s going to be in your interest to talk to me,’ and that just started to feel like a threat, like if I didn’t talk to her it was going to be bad news for me.”
As with everything related to Serial and the murder of Hae, the emotional motives aren’t quite clear. Jay shared an email from Koenig written after this encounter that certainly suggests an earnestness to give Jay the chance to tell his side of the story. Koenig’s message isn’t exceptional. It is the kind that is fairly standard for any good journalist attempting to be objective, but it does clearly convey that she is trying to give each source a fair shake.
“I think the simplest pitch I can make to you is: You have a story about what happened to you, and you should be the one to tell it…You’re in the documentary either way, so it just seems more respectful and fair to you to let you tell what happened, rather than having me piece it together from whatever I can glean from the record. On paper, in the trial transcript, you’re two-dimensional. But in real life, of course you’re more than just a state’s witness. You’re a person who went through a traumatic thing…Even just meeting you yesterday for that short time, hearing you talk so forcefully about what you saw, and about Adnan’s guilt—for both Julie and me, that was powerful and clarifying.”
For the most skeptical and cynical Serial fans, Jay’s voice won’t sway us one way or the other on Adnan’s guilt. He doesn’t say anything dramatically, anything that can’t be easily explained as a suspect discrepancy. But hearing from him now is a sharp reminder that while we may all like to play armchair detective when it comes to Serial, there are real lives at stakes—and one that was lost.