Oct 5 2014

The Price of Tea

By Sarah Koenig

Last spring, Adnan sent me a letter about ... something, I can’t even remember exactly what. But it included these two graphs that he’d drawn out in pencil. With no explanation. There was just a Post-it attached to the back of one of the papers that said: “Could you please hold these 2 pages until we next speak? Thank you.”

Here’s what he sent:

Price of tea at 7-11

Price of tea at C-Mart

This was curious. It crossed my mind that Adnan might be … off his rocker in some way. Or, more excitingly, that these graphs were code for some top-secret information too dangerous for him to send in a letter.

But no. These graphs were a riddle that I would fail to solve when we next spoke, a couple of days later. 

Adnan: Now, so would you prefer, as a consumer, would you rather purchase at a store where prices are consistent or items from a store where the prices fluctuate?
Sarah: I would prefer consistency.
Adnan: That makes sense. Especially in today’s economy. So if you had to choose, which store would you say has more consistent prices?
Sarah: 7-11 is definitely more consistent.  
Adnan: As compared to…?
Sarah: As compared to C-Mart, which is going way up and down.

Look again, Adnan said. Right. Their prices are exactly the same. It’s just that the graph of C-Mart prices is zoomed way in — the y-axis is in much smaller cost increments — so it looks like dramatic fluctuations are happening. And he made the pencil lines much darker and more striking in the C-Mart graph, so it looks more...sinister or something. 

This was Adnan’s point: See how easy it is to look at the same information, but, depending on how it’s presented, come to two different conclusions about what it means? The 7-11 graph is the “innocent” graph. The C-Mart graph is the “guilty” graph. But they contain the same information. 

Adnan says he’s thought about this a lot in relation to his own case, and he’s always been baffled by it; how some people (the jurors) sat through the trial and heard one thing, and others (his family, his lawyers, his friends) sat through it and heard the opposite. 

"I read a book about a prosecutor who said it’s not always about innocent or guilty, it’s about who can persuade the jury,” Adnan said. “And they’re not being dishonest — nothing about that graph is dishonest — but it’s kind of misleading. It’s darker, it’s zoomed in, the heading is underlined. Everything about it is misleading, but it’s true information. 

"When I first came [to prison], I was naïve to the law, to prison life, to a lot of things," he said. "Now that I’m older, I see guys naïve to the law coming in. I use this graph to illustrate it. Probably people here say, 'Oh my god, Syed showed you that damn graph, didn’t he?' And I’m like, 'No it proves a point!' It proves a good point. So I’m kinda infamous for those graphs.” 

By the time I’m done with this story, I’m hoping I’ll have plotted my own tea graph - without undue spin from C-Mart, or 7-11. 

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