Serial' podcast calls on UB professor's expertise

Law professor Ewing featured on murder case series


Charles Ewing says that people kill because something happens to them that pushes them over the edge.

“People sometimes lose it,” he said.

Ewing, UB Law professor and SUNY distinguished service professor, has examined hundreds of killers across the United States and Canada, most of whom have killed someone close to them.

His knowledge of how a young murderous mind operates is what inclined an executive producer of the podcast “Serial” to contact Ewing in search of answers.

“Serial,” a podcast that has broken the iTunes record for the most downloads in the shortest period of time examines a 1999 Maryland murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Lee was found strangled to death in a park outside of Baltimore a month after being reported missing. The podcast has sparked debate whether the first-degree murder conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was justified.

The New Yorker has called the series “the podcast to end all podcasts.” Even Ewing, who has been featured in dozens of national network and cable television programs, has been affected by the fame of “Serial.”

“I got a call from an attorney in another state, who asked me to examine a murder defendant he is representing,” Ewing said in an email. “I asked where he’d gotten my name and he said, ‘Serial.’”

Law school students were especially surprised and proud to hear one of their professors on the widely listened podcast, which aired its first episode in October.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the podcast,” said Charles Cook, a first-year law student. “Ewing’s information on what happens to the killers mind after the fact of the murder really transformed how I viewed Adnan as a killer.”

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder created the new-fangled series. They were both producers of the other National Public Radio podcast “This American Life,” of which “Serial” is a spinoff.

Koenig, who also hosts “Serial,” explored if a person who is seemingly incapable of committing a murder could kill.

So, she turned to Ewing.

“I decided not to respond at first,” Ewing said through email of Snyder’s consistent calling and emailing. “But she was so persistent … and I agreed to do a short interview with Ms. Koenig.”

Koenig, too, showed her persistency throughout the series, regularly hunting down sources and interviewing people close to Syed and Lee to flesh out parts of the trial that seemed unclear.

That short interview of Ewing aired in episode 11 of the podcast's inaugural season, which has 12 episodes. The title of the episode is “Rumors,” which takes a comprehensive look into convicted murderer Syed’s past.

“I think we’re all capable of committing homicide under the right circumstance, and I think most people are good people,” Ewing told Koenig in the episode. “Except for stone-cold killers – and I've seen some of those – most people who kill are fairly normal, ordinary people.”

Koenig has taken apart Syed’s case. She raised questions about Syed as a killer and how courts handle such cases. Ewing was impressed with the level of scrutiny Koenig expressed in the examination of his case.

“Ms. Koenig did a terrific job laying out the case for and against Adnan,” Ewing said.

One of the determining factors in Syed’s guilty verdict was that he couldn’t – and still can’t – remember what he was doing the day his ex-girlfriend went missing. Ewing commented directly on Adnan’s lack of memory for that day in January 1999, which police first questioned him about weeks after the murder happened.

“Probably half the people I’ve evaluated for killing other human beings have some degree of amnesia for what they’ve done,” Ewing said during his interview with Koenig. “It doesn’t last forever. It’s very difficult to maintain that kind of facade.”

“Serial” concluded its first season in December. The podcast, which is a production of WBEZ Chicago, has plans for a season two to air sometime in 2015.

“Serial” is a story is told week-by-week, which means there is no conclusiveness to the investigation.

“Regarding innocence or guilt, this case poses a mystery that may never be solved,” Ewing said.

You can check out Ewing's time on "Serial" below: