We, as a nation, are sometimes riveted to something in our popular culture that we can’t stop talking about it and wait anxiously for the next episode or revelation. We speculated about Walter White’s motivation and moral compass as we collectively watched “Breaking Bad.” We repeated snippets of dialogue and mourned many deaths on “Downton Abbey.” Today, it’s not a TV show that has captured our national attention. it’s a podcast, “Serial.”
For many listeners, it’s a true “Did He Do It?” Did Adnan Syed, then 17, kill his former girlfriend? Did he, along with a small time drug dealer named Jay, drive her body and ditch it in a park, as Jay told police? Or was Syed at a library across from his high school, as one witness named Asia, who was never called to testify, maintains?
It’s a murky, complicated 15-year-old case that sent Syed, declaring his innocence, to jail for life. Most people were drawn to the podcast because of the mystery and anticipation for the next installment. They have theories about the case and how information was highlighted or downplayed, based on personal perspective. The Marshall Project interviewed legal minds right before episode 11, and it’s no surprise that lawyers leaned toward explanations and theories that were consistent with whether they “played offense or defense.” I am drawn to it, in great part, because I filter everything through my MST lens.
My husband, Bill, can’t believe that Adnan’s track coach didn’t remember if the boy was at practice. A high-school and college athlete, Bill was appalled by this. “The coach didn’t take roll? He didn’t ask every single kid where Adnan was. Didn’t ask who saw him last?” Having the coach confirm that Adnan was at track practice would have complicated the prosecution’s timeline and raised reasonable doubt.
For me, as a therapist, supervisor, and expert consultant delivering Multisystemic Therapy (MST) for close to 15 years, I was dismayed by the incredibly low level of supervision and monitoring this group of teens had. They were off everyone’s radar. Adnan left school in the middle of the day, and no one noticed. He had almost two full hours between the end of school and beginning of track practice. He couldn’t really account for that time, and no adult remembered seeing him. (I’ll leave Asia’s interaction with him and the reasons she recanted seeing him to the Reddit subforums.)
Fifty years of research on juvenile crime and delinquency reveals salient contributing factors. One is that lax supervision and monitoring of young people can lead to criminal behavior and substance use. The murder accusation aside, by his own admission, Adnan was involved in some criminal behavior, stealing from the mosque, and was using drugs. In MST, we look at a young person’s day and consider all the windows of opportunity for substance use and delinquent behavior. We work diligently to help caregivers close those windows. Asking school personnel to call if a young person isn’t in class or requesting the coach let parents or caregivers know if a teen doesn’t show for practice would be typical MST interventions designed to increase supervision and monitoring.
Another factor that contributes to juvenile crime and delinquency is peer association. Adnan made a reference to that in Episode 9. He expressed sadness and remorse over Hae’s death and said, “I never should have been friends with these people who—who else can I blame, but myself?” Adnan’s parents were concerned about his relationship with Hae. His mother monitored phone calls from her, and both parents made him leave a school dance where he was with Hae. In MST, we assess all a young person’s friends and decrease time spent with troublesome ones while increasing time with pro-social peers. I would have wanted Adnan’s parents to use those same skills to target associations with Jay.
Research also points us to protective factors to prevent juvenile delinquency. Adnan had many. He was academically successful. He had connections with teachers. He had a close-knit family. He was involved in the mosque. He had some pro-social friends. He was on the track team. And he was part of an extended community that obviously cared for him.
Adnan clearly had potential to be a leader. After the last episode, I landed my theory for what happened and who committed the murder with relative certainty and ease. I will never feel ease over the lost potential. Both Hae’s and Adnan’s.
If you haven't listened to Serial, you can tune in here.