Officials disclosed they considered holding “Serial” producers in contempt because of their use of courtroom audio from Adnan Syed’s trial. (Baltimore Sun video)
The popular "Serial" podcast relied in part on Baltimore courtroom audio from the trial of Adnan Syed to help raise questions about and bring attention to his case.
But if the courts had their way, the podcast's millions of listeners wouldn't have heard any of Syed's original trial. Officials disclosed this week that they even considered holding the producers in contempt.
Maryland law prohibits the broadcasting of any criminal case, and court officials this year reached out to producer Sarah Koenig about how the tapes ended up in the podcast. Earlier this year, Syed's conviction was overturned in part on questions raised by listeners of the show.
Koenig said she received incorrect legal advice about the state's rules on courtroom audio, which the court accepted after Koenig agreed she would not broadcast court proceedings in the future.
"In light of her explanation and acknowledgment, a decision was made not to proceed with sanctions such as contempt for this occurrence," said Kevin Kane, a spokesman for the Maryland Judiciary.
Several states allow wide access for cameras in courtrooms. Not only are cameras not allowed under any circumstance in Maryland, but the courts restrict access to share video and audio recorded by courtroom cameras after a case has concluded.
In Baltimore, reporters may only view such video recordings by sitting at the desk of a courthouse staffer. Audio CDs can be purchased, but cannot be shared.
In an interview with The Sun, Koenig said she noticed a sticker on the recordings of Syed's 2000 trial that said they could not be broadcast. She said her team consulted with an attorney who said they were OK to be included in the podcast.
"We did it in blissful ignorance," Koenig said. "Looking back, for us journalistically, I'm glad we didn't know what we were doing, because we might have made different decisions."
Despite the massive success of the 2014 podcast, court officials didn't inquire about the airing of the tapes until early 2016. Koenig attended a post-conviction hearing for Syed in February, and sought to obtain those recordings.
Court officials wanted her to sign a form agreeing not to air the tape.
"I was like, 'Wait, is this a new rule?'" Koenig recalled.
Koenig, who is a former reporter for The Sun, said not having the audio when producing "Serial" wouldn't have shelved the project. "But it would've been a lot less good. It would've been harder to do," he said. "We might not have talked about the trial as much. There's only so much you can have the narrator cover."
Del. Frank Conaway Jr. proposed a bill in the most recent legislative session that would allow cameras to video criminal sentencing hearings under specific circumstances by filing a written request with the clerk of court. The bill was given an unfavorable report by the House judiciary committee and died without a vote.
In 2007, a judicial committee created to study the possibility of allowing "extended media coverage" of criminal proceedings. The committee cited adverse effects of media coverage on trial participants and a "lack of educational value" of coverage and determined that "the putative benefits of electronic media coverage are illusory, while the adverse impacts on the criminal justice process are real."