Forget “Did he?”. “Could he?”

This post will contain spoilers for Reply All’s mini series ‘On The Inside’ which concluded with a fourth part this week.

This week marked the conclusion of Reply All’s mini-series ‘On The Inside’. For the past four weeks, the usual one-episode-one-story podcast took a look at the case of Paul Modrowski, a blogger who is serving a life sentence for murder, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit since being locked up in the early 1990s. For a podcast renowned for positioning itself as telling “stories about the internet”, ‘On The Inside’ started with reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni investigating this blog, one which Modrowski (who Reply All say has never seen the internet) wrote by hand and mailed to his mother to publish online between 2009 and 2015. But that initial reporting started over a year ago. So the scope of both the reporting and the resulting episodes crept well beyond the internet. Seemingly convinced they might have stumbled onto another Serial, the Reply All team, in this case led by Pinnamaneni, seek to answer the burning question any podcast listener who hears a profession of innocence over a collect call from a correctional facility would have:

“Did he do it?”

The now almost-tropes of negligent legal representation, of police typecasting, and of “who needs enemies with friends like these” we saw in both Serial’s first season and Netflix series Making a Murderer are mined yet again in this story, this time by Pinnamaneni. The murder of Dean Fawcett, known to be a friend of Paul Modrowski, was a grisly affair, Fawcett’s body found with an arm, hand, and head sawed off. Once the details of the case are explored, we learn of a second person Robert Faraci, friend to both Modrowski and Fawcett, who was questioned and tried as part of Modrowski’s conviction. One of the key insights provided by a gripping interview between Faraci and Pinnamaneni is what Faraci saw to be his advantage in front of a jury: when testifying, Faraci remembered looking every juror squarely in the eye. Modrowski on the other hand did no such thing.

In learning about Modrowski’s autism and high school history in Part II of ‘On The Inside’, we view him with sympathy through enlightened eyes. Autism spectrum disorders are understood far greater now than they were at the time of Modrowski’s trial and his level of performance, with a self-confessed IQ of 130+, certainly would have precluded him from a dismissal on the grounds of legally defined mental retardation. But it does smooth over what is described as a cold exterior Modrowski presented in the court room. With hindsight, and with no small dose of self-aggrandisement, we presume we would have found this man not-guilty, a victim of his own disability — just like we would have found Adnan Syed and Steven Avery not-guilty.

But this is what marks Reply All’s mini-series as distinct from either Serial or Making a Murderer. Sarah Koenig was adamant that she was less concerned with Syed’s innocence as she was with determining whether the evidence provided was sufficient for a conviction. Making a Murderer too was largely concerned with the judicial apparatus, specifically of the wonky machine that is a police department. There’s none of that here. Instead, we’re left entirely with judgements of character. Between our pity-soaked initial read of the misunderstood Modrowski and our impression of the easily-agitated oleaginous Faraci, we’re given a seat on a jury without capacity to work through any of the evidence in the case. Instead of asking “Did he do it?”, we’re forced to ask “Could he do it?”.

Pinnamaneni admits in the final instalment that

“In the “guilty” column, there’s no physical evidence.”

So instead, in the showpiece of Part IV, Pinnamaneni gets the first face-to-face interview with Modrowski inside the prison. She takes Modrowski through oblique anecdotes from his past that she says “look really bad”. She brings up when he stabbed another kid at school, when a girl at school received threatening phone calls, all of which Modrowski clumsily handles by excusing them as being “jokes” or just stuff that happens in high school. I can hear a defence attorney shouting “Objection!” at every one of these questions levelled at Modrowski, badgering him for “looking bad” instead of concerned with evidence about the case. This distinction in the optics of the situation results in a disingenuous character study where the cliché’s of fictional serial killers and sociopaths cloud our interpretation, just like the juries of Syed and Avery were themselves clouded. In the final interview, Modrowski’s angry for being locked up for so long from such a young age and who wouldn’t be, especially if you’re convinced of your own innocence? Instead, the fever pitch to which Modrowski is worked up, going so far to call Pinnamaneni “you’re a little nosy person” is played as the triumphant conclusion, with every one of his words spoken in a raised voice another nail in Modrowski’s coffin marked with “GUILTY”.

I don’t have the means to determine whether Modrowski is guilty or not. And ‘On The Inside’ isn’t going to provide anyone who listens that means either. So for Reply All to not only indulge in gossipy analysis of hearsay but to hold the series up as a definitive statement on the case is frankly irresponsible. After Modrowski is “thrown” by a question by Pinnamaneni she says through a sigh

“At this point, I felt like had just run out of reasons to believe in Paul’s innocence.”

And yet, Pinnamaneni is still unable to provide concrete reasons to believe in Paul’s guilt.

Originally published to Medium on June 10th, 2016.