The New Yorker on “Serial”; Burns and Rafay conviction explained

“Episode twelve conclusively proved that what we’ve been listening to is not a murder mystery: it’s a deep exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt, and therefore an exposé, if unwittingly so, of the terrible flaws in our justice system. Those among us who deign to be jurors, and don’t try to wriggle out of jury duty, too often don’t understand reasonable doubt, or can’t convince fellow-jurors about what it truly means. We convict people who haven’t been proved guilty because we feel that they are guilty. We feel that they’re guilty in part because they’re sitting in a courtroom having been accused of a terrible crime. In cases like this, the burden often ends up on proving the accused’s innocence—not innocent until proven guilty. And Adnan Syed is just the tip of the iceberg.”

True, the tip of the iceberg. Where reasonable, and far more than reasonable, doubt existed in both the McCallum case and with Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, the jury chose to convict because the defendants were presumed guilty. Along with the presumption of guilt comes the desire to re-invent the defendants–to turn them into the people who could have done the crime rather than the people who actually did it . May God or whatever force rules this universe see fit to help the people of the Washington State justice system understand that Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay are not the ‘amoral’ people they were assumed to be but two eighteen year old kids without a lot of social judgment. (At least God knows there are plenty of them!) Until such time, a terrible injustice will continue to stalk the system and all those who work in it. Everyone involved must first look at him or herself and their own children and acknowledge that this could have happened to them.

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About ken

I am a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. I work with Dr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, with whom I published Eye of the Hurricane: My path from Darkness to Freedom (Chicago review Press, 2011), as Director of Media Relations and as an advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners. Other publication credits include Songs of Aging Children (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) a book of short stories about troubled youth, and Taking Steam, a play co-authored with the late Brian Shein, staged at New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre and Toronto in 1983. Life Without (Quattro Books, 2012) is a novella about a New York cab driver wrongly convicted of killing his pregnant wife. Gary Geddes (Lt. Governor's Award for Literary Excellence) described it as "one of the most brilliant and harrowing short novels I've read since I went on a John Hawkes binge."

7 thoughts on “The New Yorker on “Serial”; Burns and Rafay conviction explained

  1. I’ve been listening to Serial, and I found the situation very similar to the Rafay/Burns case – a sole witness (Jay and Jimmy Myoshi), an inconsistent timeline, and a quick jump to the conclusion by the authorities that they had their man/men, which made it hard for them to focus on any alternative theories. My gut tells me that the right men are in jail in both cases, but there is reasonable doubt. I wonder if Sarah Koenig has any interest in this case.

    • Thoughtful comments but, with respect, your gut feeling about Burns and Rafay is wrong, Gina. I believe it was George Bush who said he had a gut feeling about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The problem with this case is that too many people used gut feelings and not their common sense.

      • Ken,

        You’d have to admit that you are forced to go with your gut as well. You may have met and talked to Rafay in person, you may have been made aware at what is possible contrary evidence, but at the end of the day, you have no right to say you know 100% they did not kill Rafay’s family.

        • Over zealous prosecutors are now allowed to fabricate a story, based on very questionable evidence that is weaved into the story as “possible”. When there are 3 or 4 of these ‘just so’ possibilities, it then starts to sound reasonable … and in fact, unfortunately, starts painting a timeline and evidence trail that only will fit with the defendant within it. It is all a loose and shoddy trail of evidence, but the story sounds good, even possible, and the defendant is right there in front of the jurors as the “indicted one” … seemingly looking guilty … but in fact scared to death by their almost unbelievable fate.

          • I find these comments analytical and perceptive. They are an apt description of the nightmare that envelops the wrongly convicted.

  2. Agree, no one should be sent to prison for life based on a hunch. It was more than a hunch that got them convicted, though.

    However, I believe they deserve another trial, based on the issues I mentioned above.

    • That’s for sure. More than a hunch. The case as presented by the state was effective storytelling. It seems to me that what is at stake in a court of law is actually a storytelling contest where truth is not always at issue. The prosecutors told a better story than the defense attorneys. It’s obviously a story that the public believes in but, as I’ve said too many times, it’s a story that is short on common sense.

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