Hae Min Lee, a smart, creative, and lovely high school student disappeared on January 13, 1999. By February 28, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was in custody and charged with first-degree murder. That quick apprehension was based on two primary pieces of evidence: an accessory witness named Jay Wilds telling police he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body; and cell phone records that seemed to corroborate the story. The Case Against Adnan Syed illustrates how evidence was gathered, and how it has since disintegrated.
Documentary investigations have the luxury of time. They get to examine a crime and its judicial outcome slowly and methodically. They interrogate original assumptions and sift through the good and bad evidence. In Syed’s case, we have almost 20 years of hindsight. Police investigations always have a ticking clock. Crime scenes, community pressures, caseloads, and clearance rates ensure quite different priorities at a vastly different pace. Documentaries that “retry” cases juxtapose that timed pursuit with a nuanced alternative.
But this HBO series is a meta case! It’s already about how documentary can intervene. Syed’s strongest ally is Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and family friend who knew that the media was a key that could unlock the case. True crime always garners interest, but sometimes alibis as well. So she reached out to journalist Sarah Koenig. The Serial podcast provided additional investigation, raising points in areas that would eventually grant Syed a new trial, including a potential alibi witness and the reliability of cell phone data. Around 100 million people downloaded that podcast, making it a cultural phenomenon in hive-mind judicial review.
The Case Against Adnan Syed has a lot to do. The four-part series must introduce all the players, recycle considerations from the podcast but also bring new insight. I am finding that it’s successful in doing so (only the first three parts were made available for press). There are new investigators commissioned by the filmmaker, fresh interviews with witnesses; they are confronted with evidence disrupting their assumptions, on camera. We also see new avenues toward the truth, specifically via untested DNA evidence from Hae’s car. Hae’s perspective is sought out too, which is another crucial dimension of the series. Her personality, types of relationships, fears, and joys are explored.
It was and is an ambiguous case. Witness stories changed, other suspects were ruled out with little explanation, exonerating evidence was never tested. Adnan’s rights were also infringed: his Muslim ties were held against him in court and his original trial lawyer did not pursue all she could, including the alibi witness. But the most disturbing and damning aspect of the case is the apparent coaching of prosecution witnesses. Audio recordings of statements given to police have subjects explicitly citing police disclosures: “I didn’t know that until you told me.” Recordings also indicate the main accessory witness Jay Wilds trailing off and expressing confusion until tapping sounds can be heard. Then he would pick up and continue. Timelines and locations were so important, so he had to get it right. He was aligning to police theories found to be in error due to cell data typos. The case was constructed with faulty materials.
So the series has compelling characters, dramatic moments, and institutional critique aplenty, but there is some formal inconsistency to note. Animation is used to give Hae’s inner life a voice (as found in her diary); but that device disappears after the first episode. I found myself wishing for its return. Introducing and then abandoning animation feels odd because it can accomplish so much. Why not employ it to other ends later in the series? Nonetheless, I am so far feeling more informed about the case and positive about the potential for justice to prevail, at least for Adnan.