I finished listening to the 12th and final episode of Serial last Sunday. Up until this past weekend, I was patiently getting through the podcasts, often waiting for a long drive in the car to listen to the next episode. But I started to see articles on the Internet about the podcast, many of them with potential spoilers, so I decided to get on with it and listen to them all for myself.

Adnan Syed as a high school senior.

Adnan Syed as a high school senior.

Serial is a story told in 12 segments, 12 audio podcasts about the murder of high school student, Hae Min Lee, in suburban Baltimore in 1999. Adnan Syed, a high school student himself at the time and a former boyfriend of Hae Min, was ultimately convicted of the murder and has been in prison ever since.


Serial, in a remarkably simple format, reviews the details of the story, including interviews of friends, teachers, family, jury members, and Adnan himself, transcripts from police interviews and court sessions, and evidence presented during the trial. Although the evidence was seemingly shaky the prosecutor was able to convince the jury to convict Adnan. Serial listeners, over the course of the 12 podcasts, are given the evidence to decide for themselves.

Sarah Koenig, narrator and executive producer of the Serial podcast.

Sarah Koenig, narrator and executive producer of the Serial podcast.

One of the areas that comes into question during the podcast is whether or not Adnan’s defense attorney, Cristina Guttierrez, did an adequate job of defending him and presenting his side of the story effectively. The narrator appropriately wonders why certain individuals essential to Adnan’s alibi were not contacted, and why cell phone tower data was not scrutinized more carefully. These are just two examples of Guttierrez’s mistakes.

Defense mistakes like these examples were bad for Adnan, but even worse than this strategic ineptness was the courtroom demeanor of Ms. Guttierrez. The Serial narrator, Sarah Koenig, characterized Gutierrez’s demeanor as aggressive, but I don’t think aggressive fully captures how she came across. During Episode 10 – The Best Defense Is a Good Defense – listeners hear actual recordings from the trial of Gutierrez grilling a key prosecution witness and then later making a procedural point with the judge. Her approach is a mixture of anger, disgust, and incredulity, all dripping with sarcasm, condescension, and arrogance. Her diatribes, long and passionate, were intended to bring the courtroom to her view of things, but they had the opposite effect on me.

Cristina Guttierrez, defense attorney for Adnan Syed. She was disbarred a year after the trial.

Cristina Guttierrez, defense attorney for Adnan Syed. She was disbarred a year after the trial.

Her approach was very off-putting and I wonder if her behavior had the same effect on the jury. The way she came across was so condescending that I could see myself (had I been on the jury) wanting the exact opposite of whatever it was that she wanted. Her passionate speeches emphasized her emotions, rather than substance. She made it look like the facts that favored her client were so weak that she needed to blow people away with her anger.


We may not be an attorney, but those of us who are a parent or a teacher know that our demeanor matters, too. Within the realm of choice theory this is why relationships and the Caring Habits are so important. When we use a Deadly Habit (e.g. – criticizing, blaming, threatening, etc.) to try and manipulate the behavior of others our demeanor alone can push people in the opposite direction from what we want. And the relationship is hurt in the process.

There can be a lot of influence and power in a calm, reasonable, and firm demeanor. We can “plant a flag” and uphold a rule without getting angry and sarcastic. In fact, the minute we get angry it takes away from that power. I think choice theory provides us with tools to minimize the number of our battles and the nature of our battles. There is nothing in choice theory that prevents us from taking a stand on an issue or that prevents us from confronting a student behavior that needs to change. To a significant degree, the challenge lies in staying calm and reasonable and connected.

As long as you are connected, you have influence.

Yes, connected. In regard to parents and children, or teachers and students, or even supervisors and employees, many times I heard Glasser say, “As long as you are connected, you have influence.” I think Cristina Gutierrez lost the connection, through her bombastic sarcasm and anger, with the jury, which led to her losing any shred of influence. Ultimately I think it led to her losing the case and sending a man to prison for life.

If you haven’t listened to Serial, you should. It’s that good. And it’s free.


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