Our nation’s obsession with the Serial podcast is this generation’s O.J. Simpson trial. Both have riveted audiences and made discussion of legal issues an everyday occurrence among non-lawyers. In turn, they have raised some interesting questions about how media can influence a trial — and how one famous case can influence another.
How did different media affect the real life outcomes of the case?
With O.J. Simpson, most of us have seen the images of the white Bronco chase, Judge Lance Ito on the bench and Kato Kaelin’s testimony. We remember what Johnnie Cochran said about the glove. We remember the “not guilty” verdict and Simpson’s reaction. From the get-go, Court TV and CNN covered every aspect of the trial. Reality TV like this was a new concept 20 years ago.
The circus-like media coverage of the case caused the trial to be moved to a different courthouse. I don’t see how the jury wasn’t influenced no matter how sequestered they were. If they casually picked up a newspaper in their hotel it would have had the Simpson case in it. Ito let cameras in his courtroom and then was subsequently criticized for not controlling his courtroom. The case was the longest in California history. Would Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and others from the “Dream Team” defense have even taken this case if it weren’t so TV friendly? (My guess is probably not all of them.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to say television influenced the verdict when there was so much evidence against O.J.
Anad Syed’s case, the basis for “Serial,” by contrast, happened years prior to the podcast. We can play armchair quarterback and look back and see that Anad’s lawyer was disbarred on another matter in 2001 and died three years later. Adnan’s lawyer’s son said her health issues could have influenced her thinking during Adnan’s trial and could have led her to not finding or looking into that potential alibi witness. The Court of Special Appeals recently agreed to hear Adnan’s ineffective assistance of counsel arguments. Some might claim that the hysteria around the podcast gave Adnan’s argument more credence than it normally would have had if it came from a more normal appellant situation.
How has the Simpson case influenced the Serial case?
Two of Simpson’s lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founded the Innocence Project, a nonprofit where law students use DNA evidence to free wrongfully convicted inmates. The Simpson case showed that DNA could be used on a more widespread basis. More defendants than ever before started asking for DNA tests after the Simpson case.
Fast forward to the “Serial” case, and the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law is planning to file a motion for DNA testing for never-tested physical evidence in the case. The DNA evidence could be exculpatory if found admissible in court and if a new trial is granted.
There are a lot of “ifs” but Adnan did not really have these “ifs” before the “Serial” podcast aired.