Serial Episode 8: Confirmation Bias FTW

Serial Episode 8: Confirmation Bias FTW November 14, 2014
The "West Memphis Three". I once tweeted at Damien hoping to get his interest in Adnan's case. He never responded. Sniff.
The “West Memphis Three”. I once tweeted at Damien hoping to get his interest in Adnan’s case.                                             He never responded. Sniff.

Raise your hand if you were surprised by what Jay had to say in this week’s episode. No one better have their hand raised. If you thought for an instant that “Mr. Your-Plea-Deal-Is-Good-Unless-You-Change-Your-Story” was going to do another “ok I come clean” when two random women show up at his door, I’ve got a bridge and a mid-east peace plan to sell you. You may have been surprised, however, with how Jay was described. Or you may have been confused. His is a catalog of contradictory personality traits, from goofy to mean, from animal lover to rat-eating-frog enthusiast (sorry, you kind of can’t be both – Google that ish and you’ll see what I mean). Unlike Adnan, who has overwhelmingly been described in similar terms by most people who know him, Jay poses a challenge to us. Other than being identified as the odd guy out, there was little similarity between what people had to say about him. What to make of his conflicted, yet beautiful, unconventionality? Nothing. That’s right. You make nothing of it. Because at this point if you really think you can assess the truth and reality of who a person is through a superficial, carefully edited and crafted, partial but maybe not impartial treatment of his (or any) character in a production, then you will forever be lost in crazy-making cognitive mazes. Is it too much of a stretch to say unless you know someone personally, you can’t really know them? You can’t. Trust me on this. Listeners will never be able to figure out whether Adnan is a sociopath or a nice guy, Jay is a psychopath or a victim, or Sarah is a bewildered glutton for punishment or a master weaver of addictive narrative (come on now). So let’s stop pretending we can psychoanalyze the depths of the souls of these people through 30-40 minute podcasts. If you still think you’re just special that way, I recommend you watch the documentaries “Paradise Lost“, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations“, and “West of Memphis” and get back to me. A TL;DR of that experience is that you, as the consumer of a show, are at the mercy of the storytellers, second and third hand narrators, and incomplete profiles of people. The only thing you can do in such a situation is try and pin down what you can, make an assessment with a sack of salt, and then forget that assessment the minute a new tidbit of information is revealed.

*Before you get all cranky, these are MY known knowns. Feel free to come up with your own.
*Before you get all cranky, these are MY known knowns. Feel free to come up with your own.

This is the best I can do. I don’t know Jay. I can only make a biased judgement based on the things I believe to be facts and those things people who DID know him personally can offer about him.  This is how I draw my conclusions about someone I don’t actually know.  And from what I think I know, if I have to believe either Jay or Adnan, I have to go with Adnan. He’s never given me a reason not to. Screenshot 2014-11-14 at 9.37.06 AM FORGET JAY, WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH STEPHANIE? Stephanie does not want to talk. Apparently she has never wanted to talk. But in 1999, Stephanie gave statements to police and private detectives.

Stephanie's statement from March, 1999. Last name redacted.
Stephanie’s statement from March, 1999. Last name redacted.

Screenshot 2014-11-14 at 10.43.54 AM

Beyond these statements, there isn’t much from what we can assess Steph. Other than the fact that she went to Jay’s sentencing with him, which I am comfortable construing as her support of him. Some folks find this detail telling – Steph knew Jay intimately, and she stood by him, which means she believed him, which means he was probably telling the truth. Fair enough. But equally true is that Hae knew Adnan intimately, and even after breaking up was close friends with him, which would seem to indicate she did not feel threatened by him. It’s clear that Jay and Steph were very much in love, and in an almost Bollywood-ish situation. Him from the wrong side of town, her from a family that disapproved of him. They clearly loved each other very much and were together despite the odds. Which makes me think that the idea that Jay (tall, strong, stabby Jay) would tolerate any threat to Steph is not just far fetched, but ridiculous. I can’t see an “alpha male” cowering at a threat to his partner. If Adnan really did threaten Steph’s life, I imagine Jay would have broken his face. It could be that Jay felt threatened though. But not by Adnan.

Trial testimony about how Hae felt about Adnan
Trial testimony about how Hae felt about Adnan. From someone other than Steph.

IS THIS WHERE I LEAVE YOU BEST BUY? Geezus Chris. Now you tell us? In all fairness to Chris it’s not like he ever got a chance to tell this story before. Because the cops never contacted him (despite Jay telling them that he had told Chris) and of course he never testified at trial. At this point, with so many versions of the tale, I’m going to have to dispense with Best Buy. Not because there is evidence it happened elsewhere, but because there is no evidence of where it happened AT ALL.  Hae could have been killed at Best Buy, at the Park n Ride, at Patapsco Park, at the library, or on the moon for all it matters. The only place I can be fairly sure it did not happen is a place with cameras. There is also this, from one of Hae’s best friends:

Hae's best friend testifying about her confusion when asked about BestBuy by the police
Hae’s best friend testifying about her confusion when asked about Best Buy by the police

 

..testimony continued
..testimony continued

According to this friend Best Buy was not a rendevous spot for Hae and Adnan. But there is Ja’uan, a friend of Adnan’s, who drew a map of where he and Adnan went to smoke pot together – in the parking of Best Buy, in the same location Jay says Adnan killed Hae (in the trial version at least).

Ja'uan's hand-drawn map of where he smoked pot with Adnan
Ja’uan’s hand-drawn map of where he smoked pot with Adnan

So what’s the truth? Here is how I interpret it. Maybe Adnan went there to smoke pot but not to have sex. Maybe that location was a place where one could go if one wanted to buy pot. Maybe it was a place Jay went to sell and smoke pot, and Jay knew that Adnan went there to smoke pot too so he just offered a location where Adnan was known to go every so often – but a location that Jay first confirmed definitely did not have cameras. AN ABOVE AVERAGE INVESTIGATION Sarah, I’m with you on this one. I got rather pouty and pissy when Detective Trainum (and how) said, “Rather than trying to get to the truth, what you’re trying to do is build your case, and make it the strongest case possible”. Having seen enough documentaries on police corruption, poor investigations, and wrongful convictions (and er knowing what happened in Adnan’s case) to hold a healthy skepticism towards law enforcement investigations, I should have guessed that this the standard M.O. But it still took my breath away to hear him say that getting at the truth was not the point of a criminal investigation. WHILE AT THE SAME TIME SAYING IT WAS AN ABOVE AVERAGE INVESTIGATION. It took me a while to be able to hold those two thoughts in my mind at the same time, until I realized what he meant was this: it was an above average investigation in confirming their presupposed theory. In other words, cops could have a theory, but their investigation to support that theory is crappy. Here, they had a theory, and then did a stellar job in investigating just enough to support it. Slow clap, dear public servants. See, if they were not cops, but instead truth-seekers, their investigation might have included the following:

  • Searching Jay’s residence
  • Testing Jay’s clothing, shoes, carpets, bedding, etc. for evidence
  • Contacting Chris and Will, both of whom Jay mentioned to them during his statements
  • DNA testing EVERYTHING from the crime scene
  • Confirming if there was actually a payphone at Best Buy
  • Getting the records for said payphone
  • Getting the records for everyone else’s phone calls (ie did Don page Hae after she disappeared? Who knows, who cares?)
  • Tracking down every damn incoming call on Adnan’s phone
  • Looking for camera evidence from the library/school after Adnan told them he was there until after track
  • Remotely attempting to reconcile the fact that Jay and Jenn both say he got “the phone call” around 3:45pm but their official timeline says it was at 2:36pm
  • Realizing the cell phone tower evidence was crap because even if you believed Jay’s final version of the story, the records only matched 4 out of 14 tower pings – a pretty dismal if you’re going to rely on it as evidence of a murder
  • Failing to ask people about their whereabouts until looooong after January 13th

 

Forensic guy testifying about stain found on tshirt in the car
Forensic guy testifying about stain found on tshirt in the car
Didn't match those folks? That's cool, no need to try anyone else
Didn’t match those folks? That’s cool, no need to try anyone else

 

Don't work too hard now
Don’t work too hard now

 

Testimony of close friend of Hae and Adnan at the first trial
Testimony of close school friend of Hae and Adnan at the first trial. Wasn’t questioned till after Adnan’s arrest.

 

Likely to be manual...BUT. Oh look a rope at the scene. No need to test it.
Likely to be manual…BUT. Oh look a rope at the scene. No need to test it.

I can, and do, make the argument that it was also Gutierrez’s job to uncover some of these things (I cannot wait for that episode – and whether it comes or not, I will do a write-up on that disaster of a defense, I promise). But essscuuuse me for feeling strongly that cops should be focused on finding out the TRUTH. Not on what is convenient for them to get a conviction.

That's what I call a murder investigation that didn't focus on the truth.
That’s what I call a murder investigation that didn’t care about the truth and didn’t try hard enough

TO BE CONTINUED… There is plenty more I want to write about here in response to the episode, from the sweet juror who was surprised that Jay got no jail time to the juror who interpreted Adnan’s failure to take the stand precisely as she had been instructed by the judge not to – but will come to that later. I am both assuming and hoping Serial delves into the actual trial/s, Adnan’s timeline and whereabouts, and Gutierrez’s handling of the case deeper, but if it doesn’t happen, you can rest assured I will. For now my takeaway from this episode is this – its not just cops who work with a confirmation bias. It’s all of us. And the only way to overcome that bias is to get as thorough an investigation possible, as many facts on the table as are humanly possible, before drawing conclusions. But that wasn’t done in this case, and apparently isn’t done in most cases. And it’s how and why the system failed Adnan.


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