Surreal Listening: A Wrongfully Convicted Man’s Take on ‘Serial’

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Editor's Note: Ryan Ferguson spent the last ten years of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit. By pouring his efforts into his health and fitness, he managed to turn a kafkaesque conviction into a relatively bearable one. He is most recently the author of Stronger, Faster, Smarter. Below, Ryan talks about the surreal experience of listening to the hit podcast 'Serial,' in which he's found many similarities between Adnan and himself. 

Serial, NPR's hit podcast, came recommended to me by a good friend who had been wrongfully arrested, prosecuted, convicted and, in time, rightfully acquitted. I immediately assumed there had to be something there. I mean, who would know better than her?

Nevertheless, weeks went by and I failed to listen. Then came a road trip. What I had planned as a quick listen to a few episodes turned into an all-out marathon, as a friend and I journeyed from Atlanta to Southern Florida.

The drive was to be ten long, redundant hours of flat wastelands -- essentially a lost day. Yet, as we left the city and headed south, our drive became increasingly interesting. While Sarah methodically weaved her tale of Jay, Adnan, and Hae, we found ourselves thinking aloud, debating, cursing the insanity of the unfolding story and becoming more and more invested in these lives. At times it felt almost as though we were diving head first into a real life game of "Clue."

As I listened to the evolving story, I found myself growing angry, sickened, and uncomfortable. It felt eerily familiar to me. Whether you believe in Adnan’s innocence, one thing is clear: Sarah succinctly lays out her belief that he should not have been convicted. In our legal system, we are legally obligated to convict a person beyond a reasonable doubt. Do you think this happened? Better yet, do you think the outcome was an anomaly or the status quo?

You see, I have to ask. I have to ask because for years I was Adnan. I was the same kid who was arrested, all the while thinking: "They’ll sort this out. They’ll sort through the facts and let me go. I can’t be convicted of a crime I had nothing to do with." But I was. Just like my friend who had recommended the podcast, I was arrested at the age of nineteen, convicted at twenty-one, sentenced to forty years for a crime I didn't commit, and only finally released just under a decade later.

Even more surreal, so much of how Adnan responds to his circumstances mirrors  how I responded to mine. Listening to the podcast with my friend showed me just how differently we interpreted the words Adnan spoke. To me, what he said made sense. I understood the fears, the pressure, and the fact that you are told to simply sit quietly and do or say nothing. You are a pawn and your sole purpose is to try to survive while others battle for their careers, respect, and status over what amounts to little in their eyes: your life. By the time you understand that the truth, facts, and innocence or guilt don’t matter in this fight, it’s too late. You've faded from the world and your life is all but over.

While I was Adnan for many years, listening to this podcast provided a window into a world I didn't completely understand: The world of the viewer. The person who on the outside hears such a story and immediately becomes one with it. They share the subject’s struggles and even feel they know the person to some degree.

I can honestly say that, for the first time, I am now one of the many amazing supporters I have been so fortunate to have on my side. After appearing on shows such as "48 Hours," "Dateline," and "Nightline"; receiving thousands of kind letters and amassing over 90,000 supporters on Facebook who wrote to the police, the prosecutors, and even the governor, I am now one with them and can share in the compassion and anger they felt upon hearing the story of a person they've never met. I can share in this compassion not only because I have lived it, but because it is so obvious that our legal system doesn't care when new facts come to light and that our system is willing to leave a potentially innocent person dwelling in purgatory.

What I believe resonates most with this story, as with mine, is that this could be any of us. A friend, a parent, a child, a brother, a sister. It could even be you -- and isn't it frightening to think that, if it were, this tangle of twisted lies, deception, and dysfunction is what would determine the remainder of your existence?

For the record, using Sarah Koenig's words, I have "no dog in this fight." That said, I tend to believe in Adnan’s innocence. I feel a strong connection with him both as a listener from the outside and as a brother from the inside who has lived through a parallel situation. Guilty people simply do not have the thought patterns that he possesses. I know because I’ve been around the worst of the worst and the best of the innocent.

Conservative estimates tell us that at least 40,000 wrongfully convicted people are housed within the American justice system. I, for one, will be keeping a close eye on Adnan’s case, doing what I can to spread awareness about such injustices, and paying close attention to Sarah’s future work. If this story touched your heart as it did mine, just know that you can do the same.