In the latter part of 2014, I (Martin Rowe), like many fans of public radio, was transfixed by Serial, the Peabody award–winning podcast hosted and produced by journalist Sarah Koenig. Serial told the story of how Adnan Syed, a Baltimore high-school student, was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999—and the doubts that attended the case from the beginning. In twelve absorbing and beautifully constructed episodes, Koenig explored the murder in fascinating detail and from apparently every angle. She uncovered inconsistencies in the prosecution and defense cases; she interviewed a witness not called by the defense; and she examined the multiple internal and external relationships among the students, their families, and their societies. She also told listeners about her doubts and puzzlements. She worried on air that she was being played by the charming Adnan, and how infuriatingly unforthcoming were some individuals at the heart of the case. As well as being a compelling use of radio, Serial made abundantly clear not only how difficult it was to establish what had actually happened that day fifteen years previously, but how hazy and unreliable memory was—even among those who had very good reason to want to remember everything that went on.
Beyond a love of public radio, I had a compelling reason to listen to Serial. My company, Lantern Books, is the publisher of four books by Jens Soering, a convicted double murderer, who has currently served 29 years in prison and is the subject of an extensive profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine (“Blood Ties” November 9, 2015). Jens was very different in many ways from Adnan: he was awkward and naïve where Adnan was popular and gregarious; he was the privately educated son of a German diplomat, whereas Adnan was the child of Pakistani immigrants and attended public school. However, both were bright, with a touch of the grandiosity that sometimes makes young men think themselves untouchable; both protest their innocence.
The question that most friends who listened to Serial asked was, “Do you think Adnan did it?” To the consternation of many, and perhaps even herself, Sarah Koenig denied everyone the kind of neat wrapping-up and comforting condemnation of the guilty and vindication of the innocent that attends almost every whodunit, crime novel, or murder mystery, by admitting that she genuinely wasn’t sure. Not only that, but for all the tenacity of Koenig’s reporting and the dedication that she and the other producers demonstrated in their analysis of the facts and incisive investigation of the various narratives, I fancy she didn’t want to have to answer that question either. She was, in some ways, too knowledgeable about the case, too familiar with the people involved, too close to the realities and conflicts and human failings to come to a conclusion—no matter how complicated and nuanced—that would satisfy our deeply held wish for good guys and innocent victims to be vindicated and villains and perpetrators to be convicted.
When Heller came to talk to me about Jens, I too dreaded the innocence-vs.-guilt question, and wondered how I would answer it, if he posed it. If I said that I thought he was guilty, I’d rip up the trust that Jens and my epistolary and book-bound relationship is founded on, and, I think, leave Jens feeling even more isolated than he already is. It would go against the judgment of his original editor and my business partner, both of whom have (unlike me) met him in person. Yet to proclaim his innocence wouldn’t feel quite right, either. It would feel like I was protesting too much.
The truth is that, like Koenig, I don’t know. Like Koenig, I hold some (perhaps too much) store in not being played. Adnan and Jens are both persuasive and passionate advocates for their own innocence; both are in some way baffled at the young man who so apparently blithely sleepwalked into prison; both have been deeply schooled by incarceration and matured by time served. As Koenig noted on the show, it is hard not to warm to Adnan. Jens is a conscientious and elegant writer—remarkably so, given that English is not his first language. He is also diligent, punctilious, self-deprecating, and generous to a fault in thanking my company for its support for his work over the years. His moods swing from despair to hope—sometimes in the same letter. He can be self-righteous and self-pitying. But these are all forgivable flaws in a human being who’s spent thirty years in prison.
But there’s a more important reason why I don’t want to say whether I think he’s guilty or innocent. In his books and articles, Jens has thrown light on the lives of the poor, the insane, the illiterate, and the sick who populate our penitentiaries. He has shown prison to be inhumane and counterproductive as well as inefficient in its use of taxpayer funds. With mordant wit he’s illustrated how a dysfunctional system rewards duplicity, corruption, and criminality (among prisoners and their guards) and keeps people locked up long after they pose any kind of threat to society. In so doing, Jens has—along with many others in recent years—drawn attention to a collective shame that, finally, both the political left and right are recognizing has to change. We need prison reform desperately.
We publishers like to concoct all sorts of theories as to why our books don’t sell as well as we think they should. In Jens’ case, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the lack of support for his written work from faith-based organizations and others wanting to reform the prison-industrial complex was because Jens didn’t fit the profile of the worthy prisoner. I’m probably not unique in wanting my dose of the harsh reality of prison life to be administered by the manifestly innocent, the victim of an incompetent lawyer or a corrupt police officer or a society that locks up a disproportionately large number of those who are poor, people of color, or mentally incompetent. Jens was a white, privileged foreigner; he went on the lam following the murders and initially confessed to the crime to protect a woman he loved; he was arrogant and supercilious during his trial. Unlike Adnan, he was not easy to warm to.
However, it’s precisely for these reasons that I resist the comfortable absolutes of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” Yes, Jens is understandably eager to make the case for his own innocence—not least through the forthcoming movie The Promise. At Lantern, we’re aware that his books are meant to serve as exempla of his usefulness not only for society but for the attention of the parole board. Yet none of these invalidates the knowledge garnered from years of incarceration—sometimes in isolation or in a maximum-security facility—that would test the ability of anyone to possess an iota of humanity, let alone retain the presence of mind and equanimity to concentrate on the lives and experiences of those even less fortunate than you. For our understanding of life in prison, the liberating practice of centering prayer, the redemptive power of faith, and the casual cruelties and rank absurdities of our criminal justice system, Jens is not only as good a rapporteur as anyone but perhaps all the better for the time he’s been behind bars. His guilt doesn’t invalidate his insights; his innocence doesn’t make the conditions for him and his fellow prisoners any less harsh or infuriating.
It may be that, as with Serial’s Adnan, once Jens’ story becomes more widely known, the Innocence Project will take on his case, using the newly discovered DNA and a witness who never testified at Jens’ trial as a reason to reopen his case. Once again, many will find themselves in the discomforting situation of wondering whether in fact he’s guilty of the crimes to which he confessed. But, for me, as Jens’ publisher, that question isn’t the point.