Baltimore, 1999: Hae Min Lee, a popular high school girl, goes missing. Six weeks later her body is discovered in a local park. Her ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old Adnan Syed, is charged and convicted of her murder. He claims he is innocent.
In 2014, Serial, a podcast from the creators of This American Life, re-visited the Hae Min Lee case. It quickly became the most-downloaded podcast of all time.
In this class, we’ll begin by exploring why so many people have described the Hae/Adnan story as "Shakespearean." We’ll talk about Othello and compare it to this modern-day tale of a Pakistani-American teenager, his Korean-American girlfriend, and the African-American friend who testified against him. We'll look at the role of race in the criminal justice system, the rights of the accused, the rights of victims and their families, and the rights of juveniles under the law. We’ll examine evidence, talk about the reliability of witness testimony, discuss teen dating violence, and study the history of the jury system.
In the second half of the class, we’ll take a step back and look at the larger picture. Why do we have prisons in the first place? Are they about punishment, are they a means to rehabilitation, or are they simply a way to keep criminals off the streets? How do other countries approach these questions? What do prisons look like outside the United States? Are there realistic alternatives to prison? We’ll watch the classic 1957 drama 12 Angry Men and two documentaries about juveniles being convicted of heinous crimes for which they were later exonerated. We’ll also examine this subject from the victim’s point of view, listening to a separate podcast about a young woman whom police charged with lying about her sexual assault, only to have the truth of her story proved credible through incontrovertible evidence once other victims came forward.
Did Adnan really do it? Listeners are divided, and even Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s narrator, isn’t sure. By the end of this class you’ll undoubtedly have your own opinion. But as you think about it, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the American criminal justice system.
This class has two levels of participation.
Level 1: The podcast. Watch/listen to 2.5 hours of audio or video content per week. There will be additional material on the course web site, but at minimum you should commit to listening to the podcast itself (normally 2 episodes per week) and/or the film assigned that week.
Level 2: A semester-long exploration of the Bill of Rights. Each week will feature an in-depth look at the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These are tied to the content of the podcast. For example, during the week in which the podcast discusses why Adnan did not testify in his own defense, we'll study the 5th Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. During the week when the podcast interviews jurors in Adnan's case, we'll look at the 6th Amendment's right to an impartial jury. As we study the podcast itself and the ethical issues its creators faced while producing it, we’ll study the 1st Amendment’s right to free speech.
Because our classtime is limited, all Level 2 discussions will take place online, in the discussion section of the course web site. You'll be given 2 or 3 readings and asked to respond to some discussion questions. For the purposes of their homeschool portfolio, students who complete the course at Level 2 should consider this the equivalent of a one-semester class in American Government.
Suggested age range: High school. Although Serial handles details as sensitively as can be expected, under the circumstances, this is a subject that begins with the murder of an 18-year-old girl. The podcast also contains occasional references to teen sex and marijuana use.
When and where: Fridays 12:30-1:30 at Voyagers in Chelmsford (directions), Feb. 3 2017 to May 5, 2017. No class Feb. 24 or Apr. 21.
Fee: $200. Payment plans available. Fees waived for families with financial need. (Waivers and payment plan information.)