Serial is a new podcast from the makers of the brilliant This American Life. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, the veteran reporter is looking at a murder case from 1999 in which a young high-school student, Hae Min Lee, was found dead in a Baltimore park having been strangled. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with the crime and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. He has protested his innocence ever since. This, being a non-fiction podcast raised a few interests for people, but also some concerns as well. You can look at my previous blog of initial reactions to the podcast here: Serial- A Podcast That Feels Like a Movie.
For many Serial listeners, the question isn’t: “Who killed Hae?” It’s: “Was it Adnan or was it Jay?” Should Adnan have gone to prison? Can anyone really know what happened that day except for them? Yes, but either way, I believe that Adnan Syed was unjustly sentenced to life in prison, without having solid proof against him. I live in Canada and I am used to the judgement that someone is “innocent until proven guilty”. Yes I know this is not how Adnan’s case was looked at, but to determine the conclusion for myself, I decided to look at the facts, and see if I could prove that Adnan was guilty.
Though the prosecution offered no physical evidence or eyewitnesses that connected Syed to the crime, the State largely relied on the testimony of acquaintance Jay Wilds to corroborate with cell phone tower records. Wilds, who borrowed Syed’s phone and car for a portion of the day in question, said he helped Syed bury Lee’s body and eventually led cops to her car. Jay was with Adnan that day and when giving a report to the police he says that he helped Adnan bury the body, leading the police to Adnan as their first and seemingly only suspect. The big piece of evidence that the police used against Adnan was Adnan’s phone records from that day which they tracked to find out where the phone was that day. Here is a look at the phone records which clearly lay out exactly where the phone was at different times that day. Adnan’s story matches 100% with the beginning of the day, and the end of the day. There is no word from Jay, so all the calls and locations of the phone in the afternoon match Adnans testimony: “Jay had my car and my phone and he drove around using my cell and he picked me up and we smoked weed…..” (Serial) But what the police were holding against Adnan was that between 7 pm and 9 pm the travel path of the phone and the travel path of Adnan according to his testimony suddenly don’t match at all. There was a perfect window for ‘someone’ to bury a body. Here is an interactive cell phone tower map from Serial that points out the paths and times of the cell phone and Hae: https://serialpodcast.org/maps/cell-tower-map
As found in this blog about Jay’s story fitting the cell phone records, there is sure proof of the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies. For background purposes, here is what Jay said during his first interview:
Ritz: What happens after you drop him off at school, is there come a point in time when you go back to school and pick him up?
Jay: Yeah, uh huh.
Ritz: How do you know what time to go back to school?
Jay: He called me on the cell phone.
Ritz: Do you recall what time he called you?
Jay: Um maybe like six forty-five, something like that.
Ritz: When he calls you at six forty-five, where exactly are you?
Jay: Ah I think I was at my house.
Ritz: You’re at home?
Ritz: You leave home, you go back over to school to pick him up?
Jay: Uh-huh. (Int.1 at 11-12.)
And here is what Jay said in the second:
Ritz: Were did you drop him off at school?
Jay: In the front.
Ritz: Were do you go?
Jay: I go, I was on my way home, but then I stopped off at G[i]lston Park and ah, ah, I smoked another blunt before I went home. And then, I, I think I may have, may have gone yeah, I went to Cathy and Jeff’s. And [Adnan] called me from the cell phone there and then I left Cathy’s and Jeff’s to hang out. (Int.2 at 20-21.)
Rabia Chaudry is the attorney and author of Adnan’s story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. She explains Jay’s side of things as, “The reason Jay’s stories kept changing was the police kept gathering new information,” she says. “They would return to Jay for an interview, and all of a sudden, his story would change to match that information. So this is why Jay couldn’t keep his story straight – because they weren’t his stories.” (Chaudry Rabia. Stylist)
“Wilds changed his story during the investigation and trial, and did so again most recently in an interview with the publication the Intercept. In that, he says the burial took place around midnight, negating any significance the cell records had in placing Adnan near the burial site around 7pm.” (Chaudry, Rabia. Stylist.) Yes it is very fishy that Adnan’s phone would be at the park where Hae is buried, and there is a window of time when Adnan is unaccounted for, but that is not proof. I would not be able to rest all my judgement on someone’s word, and suspicious phone records to send someone to jail for life.
“The importance of Serial was not so much to investigate the case, but to bring attention to it. And we needed that attention.” (Chaudry Rabia)
The Autopsy Report
At Adnan Syed’s trial in 2000, Wilds testified that Syed showed him Hae’s body in the trunk of her can, and he helped Syed bury Hae’s body in Leakin Park around 7:00p.m.
At Syed’s 2000 trial, Syed acquaintance Jay Wilds testified that Syed showed him Lee’s body in the trunk of Lee’s car, and that he helped Syed bury Lee in Leakin Park around 7 p.m. the night of January 13, 1999, about four-and-a-half hours after Syed allegedly strangled her.
But Chaudry says the autopsy report makes this scenario “impossible.”
“The autopsy says that after she was killed, she was lying somewhere flat on her face for at least 10 to 12 hours before she was left in the park,” says Chaudry. “Where was she those 10 hours?” (Herbst, Diane) Police collected swabs from Lee’s body – including vaginal swabs – but they never tested them for DNA despite the fact that Lee was found with her long black skirt gathered above her waist. (Could this be because the police believed that they could find Syed had no involvement with the murder?) There was no DNA found under Hae’s fingernails that matched Adnan, which would be very unlikely if he was the one had strangled her and buried her.
Asia McClain (Now married and called Asia McClain Chapman), a high school classmate of Syed’s, testified at his 2016 post-conviction hearing that she was in the library with Syed after school during the time prosecutors said he killed Lee at 2:36 p.m. McClain wrote Syed two letters reminding him about their time that day. Syed had given the letters to his original defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez. But Gutierrez never contacted McClain and she never got to testify at his trial that she was with him until about 2:40 p.m. the day Hae disappeared.
I can not see any reason for Adnan to have been sentenced to a like in prison. There was absolutely no sure proof against him, except people’s word, and suspicion. So we have to ask ourselves, If Adnan Syed didn’t murder Hae Min Lee, then who did? The case may never be solved, and the killer never found. But we can decide for ourselves if the law acted as they should have, and if the 17-year old that was put behind bars back in 1999 was indeed guilty, or innocent.