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The Wrongful Exoneration of Adnan Syed Part II: The Legal and Media Circus

Adnan Syed would never have been released had ‘Serial’ not been made, and why advocacy journalism must be treated with caution.

· 53 min read
The Wrongful Exoneration of Adnan Syed Part II: The Legal and Media Circus
Adnan Syed leaves the courthouse on Monday, September 19th, after Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned his first-degree murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee. (Getty)

This essay is the concluding part of a two-part series. Part One can be found here.

It seems like I remember things that are beneficial to me, but things that aren’t beneficial to me I can’t remember.
~Adnan Syed, Serial

XI. Years of silence

Responsibility for the unlikely rehabilitation of Adnan Syed can be attributed almost entirely to the organizational skills and aggressive energy of his childhood friend Rabia Chaudry. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1974, Rabia is the daughter of Muslim parents who emigrated to Baltimore. Her brother Saad became a close friend of Adnan, and the families got to know each other well—Rabia refers to Adnan’s parents as “uncle” and “auntie.” Immediately after his arrest in February 1999, she described Adnan as “a sensitive guy, he’s gentle, no kind of delinquency record, he’s not violent, he’s just a kid he’s like a baby, he’s like my little brother.”

At that time, Rabia was attending law school at George Mason University and raising a young family. She was licensed to practice in Washington, DC (not Maryland) in November 2004, and for decades, she has been Adnan’s chief supporter and tireless advocate, driven by a vehement and unbending belief in his innocence. “I promised his parents I would bring him home and I did my job,” she told the Independent in 2022 after Adnan’s release. “But for me, I don’t think I’m gonna be completely satisfied until there’s an arrest in this case, and Hae Min Lee’s killers are actually found.”

For over two decades, Rabia moved mountains on Adnan’s behalf, raising funds, hiring lawyers, gathering evidence, interfacing with the media, and managing his voluminous case file. She has produced and co-hosted a podcast about the case and written a bestselling book titled Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2016). Her dedication is awe-inspiring, but it is marked by the zealotry of a true believer. For Rabia, the case is personal, and there’s no evidence that she has ever entertained a moment’s doubt about her friend’s innocence. Convinced that he had been railroaded by a botched (and quite possibly corrupt) investigation and then failed by an incompetent (and quite possibly corrupt) defence, she assumed responsibility for his cause after his conviction.

The first of Rabia’s many interventions occurred in March 2000, shortly after the trial, when Adnan was still represented by Cristina Gutierrez. Rabia learned that Adnan’s Woodlawn classmate Asia McClain had offered to provide him with an alibi for the afternoon of January 13th, 1999. On March 25th, 2000, Rabia and her brother Saad drove to Asia’s house and persuaded her to produce a handwritten affidavit:

On 01/13/99, I was waiting in the Woodlawn Branch Public Library. I was waiting for a ride from my boyfriend (2:20) when I spotted Mr. Syed and held a 15–20 minute conversation. We talked about his girlfriend and he seemed extremely calm and very caring. He explained to me that he just wanted her to be happy. Soon after my boyfriend (Derrick Banks) and his best friend (Gerrad [sic] Johnson) came to pick me up. I spoke to Adnan (briefly) and we left around 2:40.

No attorney has ever contacted me about January 13, 1999, about the above information.

Rabia also wrote to Gutierrez on behalf of Adnan’s parents asking her to take up the issue of the alibi in her post-trial motions. Gutierrez declined. Rabia neither liked nor trusted Gutierrez. At a 2012 appeal hearing, she spoke of her first meeting with Adnan’s attorney shortly after his conviction. Instead of offering Adnan’s family and friends words of comfort, she said, Gutierrez barked that she would need $50,000 for an appeal.

Rabia Chaudry speaks at an event organised by the New America Foundation on October 5th, 2016 (Flickr)

Adnan’s family fired Gutierrez in early April 2000. The next step was a “direct appeal” which plays little role in Adnan’s case. However, a theme emerges: In this first appeal, Adnan’s lawyers raised the first of many claims of incompetence against Gutierrez, including a claim that she should have cross-examined Jay more vigorously. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals denied the appeal, ruling that Adnan’s team “had a full and fair opportunity to cross-examine Wilds for five days about his prior statements to police, the manner in which he came to be represented by his attorney, the plea agreement, and the plea hearing.”

With the rejection of his direct appeal, Syed’s conviction became “final” on March 19th, 2003. This was a watershed date—after the direct appeal is denied, a conviction is presumed justified and the “defendant” becomes a “prisoner.” From that moment forward, Adnan bore the burden of proving that his trial had been unfair. Few prisoners overcome this obstacle. After Gutierrez died in 2004, her former law partners notified clients and families that they could pick up their case files.

Adnan’s family stored the file boxes in their basement until Rabia decided to look through them. She sorted the documents she thought most relevant into one box and began looking for a lawyer to file an application for “post-conviction review” (PCR). In a PCR appeal, a defendant can introduce new testimony and evidence to challenge their conviction. Maryland gives prisoners a generous 10 years to file their PCR petition after the date of their sentencing. Adnan used almost all 10 years, only filing his PCR petition on May 28th, 2010. Why did he wait so long?

Rabia sought to answer that question in her 2016 book by including an excerpt of a 2004 letter from Adnan, in which he had listed the benefits of waiting to file. It would allow him to learn more about the law, a “smoking gun” proving his innocence might appear, and it would give his family and community time to finance the appeal. This approach, he acknowledged, carried obvious risks—the deadline to appeal in federal court might elapse and “helpful” witnesses might “die, recant, refuse to come to court.” Rabia tells us that she became frustrated with Adnan’s decision to delay: “Why couldn’t we move on the PCR immediately? It was the end of 2004, and his last appeal had been denied almost eighteen months prior.”

But in a blog post dated October 8th, 2014, Rabia offered a startlingly different explanation for why Adnan had waited. In Maryland, she wrote, “a post-conviction appeal cannot be filed until 10 years have passed since the conviction.” This is wrong on two counts. First, the 10-year deadline runs from the time of sentencing, not conviction. More importantly, Maryland Criminal Procedure Code § 7-103 states that “a petition … may not be filed more than 10 years after the sentence was imposed.” The idea that a state would force convicts to wait a decade after their convictions to file an appeal makes no sense.

Skeptics have concluded that Rabia’s statement—published just as Serial was gathering its massive audience—was intentionally misleading. If it was an honest mistake, it is an alarming one for a lawyer to make—the equivalent of a surgeon leaving not just a sponge but an entire set of scalpels inside her patient. Nevertheless, as of this writing, her post remains online and she even retained the error when she migrated her blog to a new platform.

This kind of spin has led many followers of the case to conclude that Rabia cannot be trusted. In March 2015, she posted a short snippet from Hae’s diary on her blog in which Hae appeared to confess to using drugs “to hide away from reality.” Rabia acknowledged that sharing this excerpt was “a heinous violation of [Hae’s] privacy,” but argued that it was nevertheless essential to “the search for the truth of what actually happened to her”:

Excerpt from Hae’s diary, August 1999.

“I think it’s important,” she remarked, “to seriously consider where [Hae’s] day may have lead [sic] her. And it may absolutely have led her to buying some weed.” But when Hae’s entire diary was later made public, it showed that Hae was in fact quoting HBO prison drama Oz, and comparing a character’s reliance on drugs to her reliance on Adnan. Hae’s use of marijuana has never been established.

Rabia’s errors and distortions are hardly side-issues—as the driving force behind every major documentary or podcast about Adnan’s case, she has been instrumental to how that case is perceived and understood by journalists and the lay public alike.

XII. October 2012: The court hearing nobody talks about

In 2008, Rabia hired a lawyer named Justin Brown to file Adnan’s PCR petition. Brown filed the petition on May 28th, 2010, just days before the 10-year deadline was set to expire. The main theme was (again) the alleged malpractice of Cristina Gutierrez, now dead six years. Gutierrez, Brown claimed, should have built an alternate defence timeline, investigated the Asia McClain library alibi, and pursued a plea offer from the state. Brown’s petition did not spend much time disputing the cell-tower evidence, which was not yet the focus of Adnan’s appeal.

The 2010 appeal is the first time that the two letters Asia McClain claimed to have sent Adnan after his arrest had ever seen the light of day. These letters—dated March 1st and 2nd, 1999, respectively—would be a major focus of Serial. They were attached to the PCR petition without their envelopes, so there is no evidence of when they were postmarked or received, or that they were actually mailed at all. The first letter (34p) is handwritten and begins with a note: “I just came from your house an hour ago.” She writes that she’s “not sure” if Adnan remembers talking to her on January 13th, but she remembered “chatting” with him in the Woodlawn branch of the Baltimore Public Library. She stresses that she believes in his innocence and hopes that her belief is justified.

Asia says she had discussed the matter with Adnan’s family the day after his arrest. She also claims she called the Woodlawn Public Library and they said they had surveillance cameras. “I hope that you are not guilty,” she writes, “and I want hope to death that you have nothing to do with it. If so, I will try my best to help you account for some of your unwitnessed, unaccountable lost time (2:15–8:00; Jan. 13th)” because “maybe it will give your side of the story a particle [sic] head start.” In a post-script, she adds that “my boyfriend and his best friend remember seeing you there too.” Serial later contacted (27–28p) both men, neither of whom had any memory of the meeting.

Asia appears to have written to Adnan again the very next day (36–38p). This letter is much longer, typed, and has an oddly casual, gossipy tone. She tells Adnan about the rumours circulating at school but says she doesn’t find the evidence against him plausible: “I don’t understand how you would even know about Leakin Park or how the police expect you to follow Hae in your car, kill her and take her car to Leakin Park, dig a grave and find you way back home. As well how come you don’t have any markings on your body from Hae’s struggle.” She mentions a “white girl” who said “something about your fibers on Hae’s body” and wonders why Adnan hasn’t told anyone about their meeting: “Did you think it was unimportant, you didn’t think that I would remember? Or did you just totally forget yourself?” As for school rumours, “The ignorant … think that you’re guilty, while others (mostly those that know you) think you’re innocent.”

The hearing on Adnan’s 2010 petition was delayed for years because Asia, who had moved out of state, refused to testify. Eventually, Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch ordered the hearing to go ahead without her, and it began on October 11th, 2012. Trial prosecutor Kevin Urick testified (30p) that Asia had told him by phone that “she had only written [the March 2000 affidavit] because she was getting pressure from the family. And she basically wrote it to please them and get them off her back.” (Asia later adamantly rejected this characterization of the conversation.)

Rabia then testified for Adnan. She described Cristina Gutierrez as “mean” and a “terrible person” and testified that “all she wanted to talk about was money, money, money.” She also said she visited Adnan in jail after the guilty verdict and that Adnan told her that he had “given” Asia’s letters to Gutierrez, but that Gutierrez said they were irrelevant because “Asia had her dates wrong.” Nevertheless, Rabia asked Adnan to send copies of the letters to her. She then contacted Asia and got her to swear out the March 2000 affidavit (which does not mention any letters). Rabia testified that she was “furious” that Gutierrez hadn’t used the alibi and believed Gutierrez “wanted to lose the case.”

Adnan took the stand (6p) on October 25th, 2012. This was when he first claimed to have asked Gutierrez about a plea deal, and said she had told him that none was on offer. Brown offered no evidence in support of this claim—no attorneys’ notes, no research memos, no letter from Adnan asking about a plea. Nor did he call any of the paralegals or law students who had spoken to Adnan for hours. Urick testified that (18–19p) the defence had never approached him about a plea deal; their sole aim was acquittal.

Adnan then addressed the letters he received from Asia “maybe two or three days after” after his arrest. After nearly 13 years spent maintaining that he had no memory of January 13th, Adnan now stated:

And, when I received these letters, it kind of fortified the memory that I had of after school- that day. School ended at 2:15, that after school that day, I went to the public library. And I stayed there between approximately 2:40 to 3:00, and then I went to track practice. So, these letters essentially, they verify in my mind what my memory was of that day.

Adnan testified that he notified Gutierrez of the letters “immediately.” But Christopher Flohr was Adnan’s lead attorney in March 1999—Gutierrez would not become Adnan’s lawyer for several more weeks. Flohr, a prominent lawyer in Baltimore in 2012, was not called to confirm that Adnan had indeed given Asia’s letters to him. We do have Flohr’s own handwritten notes describing his work on Adnan’s case in March and April of 1999, however, and there is no mention of Asia McClain or her letters anywhere. Adnan’s cross-examination by trial prosecutor Kathleen Murphy was short and pointed: “Q: Mr. Syed, you’ve always maintained your innocence, correct? A: Yes, ma’am.” She then elicited a reluctant acknowledgement that Adnan had never tried to contact Hae after her disappearance. The prosecution called no witnesses.

On December 30th, 2013, Judge Welch denied Adnan’s appeal. Welch noted that Adnan had not shown that the State was willing to offer a plea deal nor that Adnan would have accepted one: “In fact, [Adnan]’s own statements at sentencing indicate the contrary; [he] intended to maintain his innocence throughout.” Turning to Asia McClain’s offer to help Adnan craft an alibi, Welch observed that Gutierrez “could have reasonably concluded that Ms. McClain was offering to lie in order to help Petitioner avoid conviction.” He also noted that Asia claimed to have seen Adnan at the Woodlawn Branch of the Baltimore Public Library not the library at the high school, which conflicted with Adnan’s claim that he never left the school campus. Martin drily observed that, despite having 12 years to locate them, Adnan “has not produced any of the eighty potential alibi witnesses to testify at the post-conviction hearing.”

XIII. The Serial supernova

Sensing that Adnan’s prospects in court were dim, Rabia resolved to appeal directly to public opinion. In 2013, she emailed Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun journalist who had since become a producer at National Public Radio. As Koenig recalled (5p) during Serial’s opening episode, “Rabia told me she thought the attorney botched the case—not just botched it, actually, but threw the case on purpose so she could get more money for the appeal.” This is a stunning accusation, especially against a fellow lawyer, and Koenig really ought to have demanded proof. At a minimum, it should have made her wary. (Koenig’s investigation would later confirm that Gutierrez fought hard for Adnan and was devastated at losing the case.)

Koenig faced the dilemma confronted by all journalists who set out to cover Adnan’s case (until recently)—they depended on Rabia for documents, background information, and contacts to potential interview partners. This is the besetting sin of Serial, its progeny, and many other true-crime documentaries—journalists find themselves beholden to someone with an agenda. In Adnan’s case, Koenig and those who followed in her wake knew (or suspected) that if they angered Rabia, she would pull the plug. No more interviews with Adnan and his family, no more privileged access to the case files, no more trusted liaison to the Baltimore Muslim community.

This was no idle concern. Rabia’s public comments about Adnan’s case bristle with jabs at journalists and lawyers who uncover unflattering facts about Adnan or who oppose his claims. Having cultivated friendly relations with Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton, she later turned on him, accusing him of being “in the pocket” of the Baltimore Police Department and providing “shitty coverage” of the case. When podcaster “Down Rabbit” noted that Adnan had no alibi, Rabia quote-tweeted him with the comment “Seriously fuck off” (this is one of her favourite insults). On May 6th, 2015, as Adnan’s appeals were ongoing, she tweeted: “Not only will State eat crow & apologize to #Adnan and his family, I pray every day w/head to floor, for a place in hell for them.” She has called prosecutor Kevin Urick a “dirty prosecutor,” a “perjurer,” a “motherfucker,” and “Satan” who “must be disbarred.” For State’s attorney during Adnan’s later appeals, Thiru Vignarajah, she had these choice words: “Fuck you Thiru. You’ll never escape your karma.” The list goes on and on like this.

‎Down Rabbit: Adnan Syed, Bilal, and the HE mystery on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Down Rabbit, Ep Adnan Syed, Bilal, and the HE mystery - Dec 10, 2022

Adnan sent Sarah Koenig a long letter on October 10th, 2013, shortly after Rabia first contacted her. His attorney Justin Brown, he wrote, “mentioned in his letter that you stated you would not do the story unless you believed I was innocent.” Adnan then set out his theory of the case: The State said Hae was murdered by 2:36pm on January 13th, 1999. That gave him 21 minutes to intercept her and kill her. If that proved impossible, he must be innocent. “When I was arrested,” he went on, “I received a letter from a girl named Asia McClain. … I gave this to Ms. Gutierrez immediately, and requested she contact Asia McClain.”

Adnan did not tell Koenig in this letter that he had wanted to plead guilty, and Koenig was subsequently startled (240p) to discover he had. “I told Adnan I found it hard to believe that he’d asked for a deal,” she said in Serial. “He’s been so unshakable for 15 years that he’s innocent, that he had nothing to do with Hae’s death.” But by that time, she was already 10 episodes into a show investigating a purported miscarriage of justice.

Serial doles out anecdotes, reminiscences, and new discoveries in a tantalizing rhythm. We listen as her team puzzle over it all and share their spontaneous reflections about the case. At one point, Koenig disarmingly admits that Adnan “has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.” Her narrative focusses on three questions:

  1. Why couldn’t Adnan remember the events of January 13th, 1999?
  2. Could the trip from Woodlawn to Best Buy have been accomplished in 21 minutes?
  3. What might Asia have said as an alibi witness?

Serial is flawed and outdated, but it is not pro-Adnan propaganda. Koenig declines to endorse Adnan’s innocence (although she believes that enough reasonable doubt existed to justify an acquittal at trial), and her producers disappoint Adnan by recreating the drive from Woodlawn to Best Buy in just over 20 minutes. (This YouTuber did the same, and Debbie Warren testified that the drive took “about eight minutes maximum.”) The series acknowledges that none of the jurors Serial contacted expressed any doubt about Adnan’s guilt. Koenig also hired an experienced homicide detective, Jim Trainum, to review the investigation of Adnan’s case, which he called “better than average.” Koenig paraphrases Trainum: “The detectives in this case were cautious and methodical. They weren’t rushing to grab suspects or to dismiss them either. The evidence collection was well documented.” Although Trainum was bothered by Jay’s inconsistencies, he reminded Koenig that: “He took them to where the car was. That’s a huge thing right there.”

Late in the podcast, producer Dana Chivvis reflects that if Adnan really is innocent, he must be among the unluckiest people alive given the convergence of incriminating evidence. “To make [Adnan] completely innocent of this,” she concludes dubiously, “you just have to think ‘God … you had so many terrible coincidences that day … you had such bad luck that day, Adnan.’” Consciously or not, Chivvis is reverse-engineering how circumstantial evidence can be used to prove guilt.

Journalist Sarah Koenig gives a talk in March 2015. (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel, wikicommons)

Yet there are problems with how Serial addresses its main themes. First, Koenig accepts Adnan’s timeline: “I have to know if Adnan really was in the library at 2:36 PM. Because if he was, library equals innocent.” But Adnan could have killed Hae at any point after 2:15pm and would be just as guilty. Koenig is also too credulous about Asia McClain. She never asks Asia (or anyone else) why her letters appeared out of nowhere more than a decade after they were written. Nor does she mention the 80 alibi witnesses who were supposed to be able to account for Adnan’s time at track practice and the mosque, even as she notes that Adnan “so sorely needed alibi witnesses.”

Finally, the series adopts Adnan’s spin about the fallibility of memory. Serial starts by asking random people to remember what they did six weeks ago; unsurprisingly, most cannot. But January 13th, 1999, was hardly an unremarkable school day. It was the birthday of Adnan’s good friend Stephanie; it was the first full day he had his own cell phone; it was the first time he had ever loaned Jay his car; and it was the first time he loaned Jay his new phone. It was also the day he visited Jay’s friend Kristi Vinson—someone Adnan did not know—and acted bizarrely in her apartment.

During that visit, Adnan was questioned on his new phone by a policeman who told him that his ex-girlfriend was missing, that her family were concerned, and that Adnan’s own friends recalled him asking Hae for a ride earlier that day. Kristi and Jay both recall him being freaked out by that call. From that day until his arrest, detectives asked Adnan weekly about Hae and his whereabouts on the 13th. He even complained to his friends Debbie Warren (5p) and Ja’uan Gordon (9p), respectively, that police were “somewhat harassing him” and that he was “getting a little pissed off by police calling him a lot.” (Gordon also told police that, after Hae’s body was discovered in Leakin Park, Adnan claimed not to know where the park was.)

The strongest evidence that Adnan’s memory gaps are strategic is in Serial itself. Koenig presses Adnan, hoping to knock facts loose, and sure enough, his memory cautiously revives now that he is not under oath or at risk of searching cross-examination. He now remembers that he bought his friend Stephanie a “stuffed reindeer” for her birthday, and that he loaned his car to Jay so Jay could buy Stephanie a present, too. Once Koenig tells Adnan that Asia stands by the alibi, Adnan permits himself to remember chatting with Asia in the Woodlawn Public Library. When it comes to the “crucial window” of Adnan’s time after school, though, Koenig notes that “his memories become nonspecific. Usually we did this, or we probably would have done that.”

Serial also elicits statements from Adnan which undermine his story. For instance, he insists that he did not leave the campus of Woodlawn High before the end of track practice (about 5.30pm). He then backtracks, saying he’s only “99 percent” sure of this, and admits that “it seems like I remember things that are beneficial to me, but things that aren’t beneficial to me I can’t remember.” Adnan also initially claims not to remember the “Nisha Call,” which Koenig calls “the smoking gun” and Adnan’s “big, fat problem,” since it places him with Jay and his phone on the afternoon of the murder. This call, she points out, “looks terrible” for Adnan. Convicts invariably obsess for years over the evidence that sent them to prison, but Adnan was apparently the exception.

Koenig’s team do their best to find an innocent explanation for the Nisha Call. The theory that Jay picked the wrong number from a recent-call list doesn’t explain why the call lasted over two minutes. So Serial speculates that the call might have been a “butt dial,” placed accidentally while the phone jangled around in Jay’s pocket. But then why did Nisha wait two minutes before hanging up? Adnan eagerly suggests the call reached Nisha’s answering machine. Koenig reminds him that she didn’t have one. Serial rescues its theory by locating an antiquated AT&T billing agreement which seems to allow the company to bill even if a call is not answered. This strains the credulity of producer Dana Chivvis:

I mean, even if the Nisha Call could potentially be a butt dial … but what are the chances? That sucks for you that your phone butt dialed a girl that only you know and would call on this day that your ex-girlfriend goes missing that you happen to loan your car and your phone out to the guy who ends up pointing the finger at you.

It also leaves the question of why Nisha would perjure herself by testifying that Adnan called her and then passed his phone to Jay. There’s really no need to stack one implausible event on top of another when a far more parsimonious explanation is available: Nisha told the truth and Adnan is lying.

The Nisha Call is only one of the problems the cell phone evidence presents to those determined to prove Adnan’s innocence. Adnan confirms (he has little choice) that he regained possession of his cell phone after track practice (around 5.30pm) and had it with him the rest of the evening. Cell-phone records (which largely match Jay’s testimony for the evening of the 13th) place the phone within coverage zones that exclude the mosque but include Kristi’s apartment and Hae’s grave site. But Koenig is so eager to believe Adnan that she barely acknowledges these incriminating facts.

Even so, she is unable to prevent him further incriminating himself. The most damning mistake Adnan makes in Serial occurs in the second episode, when he tells Koenig this:

I would—wouldn’t have asked [Hae] for a ride after school. I’m—I’m sure that I didn’t ask her because, well immediately after school because I know she always—anyone who knows her knows she always goes to pick up her little cousin, so she’s not doing anything for anyone right after school. No—no matter what. No trip to McDonald’s. Not a trip to 7-Eleven. She took that very seriously.

This bold assertion of total recall conflicts with Adnan’s own statements to police and with trial testimony from his schoolmates. It also conflicts with what Adnan told his own lawyers. In notes of an interview with their client dated October 6th, 1999, one of them wrote (95p): “Since Hae was responsible for picking up her niece after school, they would have sex in the Best Buy parking lot close to the school after school. Hae would leave to get her niece and they would see one another that night, when they would have sex again.” Koenig claims to have reviewed the defence file carefully and the producers (272p) did “one final sweep” of the “attorney files … just to be sure we’d weighed everything.” It may be that the October 1999 memo was not among the attorney files Rabia shared with Serial. If it was, Koenig either missed its significance or chose to withhold the information.

Had Adnan said any of what he told Koenig on the witness stand, his testimony would have been ruthlessly dissected under cross-examination. During closing arguments, Urick and Murphy would no doubt have informed the jury that lying to police about your whereabouts and intentions just before a murder (not to mention concocting a fake alibi) betrays what the law calls “consciousness of guilt.” Koenig’s willingness to overlook Adnan’s clumsy deceptions—or dismiss them as innocent blunders or memory lapses—is a common flaw in true-crime documentaries. Not only can incredulity shut down cooperation, but it also threatens the exculpatory narrative to which they are now committed.

So Koenig turns away from the question of whether or not her subject and principal source can be trusted—the most important issue faced by a journalist in her position—and concentrates instead on secondary matters: Jay’s inconsistencies, Asia’s motives, Gutierrez’s problems, Alonzo’s exhibitionism, even serial killers who might have randomly targeted Hae. Had she not done so, her podcast would have limped to an obvious but disappointing conclusion: Sorry for wasting your time, Adnan Syed’s conviction was sound after all.

XIV. Another podcast, another documentary

Serial became a milestone, winning a Peabody award in 2015. Rabia Chaudry listened to every episode and provided indiscreet real-time commentary on her blog. Her reaction was mixed: On one hand, Adnan’s case was now a cause célèbre. On the other, she took a dim view of Koenig’s misgivings. As a 2022 article noted:

When Chaudry brought the case to Koenig, she’d hoped the journalist would strongly advocate for Syed. Chaudry was further frustrated by her inability to have a say in what went into the episodes. After Koenig did not definitively assert Syed’s innocence at the conclusion of Serial, she and Chaudry reportedly had several “heated exchanges.”

One can only imagine. Chaudry has continued to attack Serial and Koenig, tweeting in 2022: “Serial set fire to Adnan’s story, to some extent deliberately, and has never apologized or made amends.” She later tweeted at NPR producer Ira Glass: “Instead of acknowledging mistakes … you just triple down into your faulty narrative and reporting.”

Nevertheless, Serial mesmerized two law bloggers, Susan Simpson and Colin Miller. Simpson, an associate at a Washington, DC law firm, began posting about the series on a blog called “The View from LL2.” Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina and editor of the “Evidence Law Blog,” also began tracking the case. Rabia invited them to join her for a new podcast called Undisclosed, which launched on April 13th, 2015, four months after Serial ended.

In the first episode of Undisclosed, Rabia declares her bias in favour of Adnan, but promises that Simpson and Miller will provide some balance. She granted Simpson and Miller access to the entire defence file. Proceeds from the podcast went to the “Adnan Syed Trust,” which attracted nearly $200,000 in private donations. About 30 episodes of Undisclosed are devoted to Adnan’s case, including addenda, bonus features, and guest interviews.

Naturally, the hosts presume that Adnan was unfairly convicted and, working backward from that presumption, that the investigation had to be flawed. Police and detectives must have been biased, incompetent, overworked, or some mix of all three. Every imaginable issue is flagged: chain-of-custody gaps, questions unasked, unrecorded interviews, backdated reports, conflicting statements, hidden Crime Stoppers tip calls, exculpatory evidence hidden from the defence, and much more. Rabia tones down her rhetoric, while Simpson pores over documents and constructs theories. Miller, the law professor, is the most restrained of the three, mainly providing legal analysis.

For Adnan’s supporters, Undisclosed demolishes the prosecution’s case. Others found the relentless bias and the focus on side-issues wearisome. The hosts also tended to release only “snippets” of documents and attacked the reputations of people involved in the case. The primary target is Gutierrez, whom they roast for hours, describing every dissatisfied former client, every missed court date, every billing dispute, every tiff with colleagues, every lost case, and every supposed mistake in Adnan’s trial. The podcast also dwells on her illnesses, even playing audio from the trial in which she asks the judge for an unscheduled bathroom break. One guest adds the titillating detail that Gutierrez brought plastic bags to court so she could discreetly vomit into them.

Don Clinedinst comes in for the same treatment, although there seems to be some disagreement about his culpability. In a blog post prefaced with the assurance that “Don was not involved in Hae’s murder,” Simpson nonetheless criticizes the police for not doing more to “exclude” him as a suspect. The post ends on a noxious note: Simpson obtained 16-year-old personnel evaluations from LensCrafters which criticized Don for supposed “integrity issues” and a tendency to become “agitated.” Simpson helpfully transcribes these evaluations so that search engines will find them before re-iterating that she does “not believe Don had any involvement whatsoever in Hae’s death.” So then what was the purpose of this exercise?

Like all Adnan supporters, the Undisclosed hosts are harshly critical of the State’s case but unable to advance a convincing alternative. In the final section of a mildly contentious Bloggingheads interview with journalist Robert Wright, Simpson was asked whether she believes Jay murdered Hae: “I don’t—most of the time I don’t think Jay did it. I don’t really—I mean. I don’t think so. I mean he might have. I think there is—it’s tough to say.” Simpson seems to understand that a scenario in which Jay killed Hae but Adnan was uninvolved is logically impossible. And Adnan must be protected from involvement, no matter how implausible the theory.

Simpson then recites a farrago of speculation, gossip, and innuendo, including the insinuation that Hae may have smoked marijuana. Pressed to name an alternate suspect, she says it was someone who “knew Jay and Hae,” and even claims she has “plausible candidates” in mind but declines to identify them. Eight years later, she still hasn’t. When asked what this person’s motive for strangling Hae to death might be, she says, “The motive thing never bothers me because murders are so random … the motive is kind of irrelevant.”

Colin Miller’s theory also manages to exclude any role for Jay (which would automatically implicate Adnan), but it is no more convincing. In a 2018 blog post, Miller declares that, as of the early evening of January 13th, 1999, “Adnan, Jay, and Jenn have had nothing to do with the death of Hae Min Lee.” After the murder, he continues:

Jay and Jenn come into contact with the killer. And, whether due to money, fear, or friendship, they agree to help the killer with burying Hae in Leakin Park. … Jenn and Jay see a chance to minimize their responsibility and protect the real killer … by going along with the police’s theory and pinning the crime on Adnan.

This requires us to believe that Jenn and Jay were willing to risk prison to protect an unidentified third party and then perjure themselves to convict their friend in his place. That Adnan turned out to have no alibi was presumably a happy coincidence.

The most recent documentary to examine Adnan’s case is The Case Against Adnan Syed, a four-part HBO miniseries broadcast in 2019 and produced by Amy J. Berg. On the front page of her own website, Rabia claims to be executive producer of this series (she is not listed in the IMDb credits). She is unquestionably its star. Her co-star is Asia McClain, a reluctant heroine battling prosecution intimidation to speak her truth. Predictably, The Case Against Adnan Syed ignores the case against Adnan Syed entirely. The first episode draws extensively on Hae’s diary, even animating sections of it. (The Lee family appears only in archive clips.) The third episode consists largely of an interview with Asia and never mentions the doubts surrounding her letters.

The producers hired two private investigators to re-examine the case, and they discover that Jay caught more arrests after Adnan’s trial. The documentary insinuates there was something fishy about Don’s timesheets from LensCrafters, and that police might have found Hae’s car before Jay did, but the investigators subsequently clarified that they found no evidence to support either theory. In one lengthy sequence, they visit the lot where Hae’s car was found and hire a scientist to analyse the grass under the car’s tires in the crime-scene photos for indications that the car had been moved. The results are inconclusive.

The only police officer interviewed is veteran Baltimore homicide detective Darryl Massey. Asked about Jay’s changing stories, Massey points out that what “non-investigators” don’t understand is that “culturally, in Baltimore, the first story anybody tells you is going to be a lie. Then when they refine that story, it’s going to be less of a lie.” The filmmakers interview some trial witnesses, but they have nothing much to say. They doorstep Don, who refuses an interview and tells them he is seriously ill and just trying to live to 50 so he can provide for his family when he is gone. Rabia is still attacking Don online, taunting him in tweets in 2022 about his supposed lack of an alibi (“[I]s that you Don? Were you at work all day but then got sick when you got home? Please do tell.”)

The Case Against Adnan Syed received some queasy reviews. Adnan’s supporters found it convincing, but skeptics dismissed it as a propaganda exercise, pointing to its opaque sourcing and refusal to engage with the evidence against Adnan. We do learn that, in 2018, as Adnan’s appeals worked their way through the Maryland justice system, the Attorney General of Maryland offered Adnan a deal. If he entered a guilty plea, he would be guaranteed release in about four years. He refused.

XV. Two document dumps

While Rabia and her army of supporters pleaded Adnan’s case in the court of public opinion, his lawyers were busy in Maryland’s courts. After Serial, Internet followers began unearthing documents and witnesses which began to affect Adnan’s fate in Maryland’s courts. In The Case Against Adnan Syed, Justin Brown even thanks online sleuths for their help. Susan Simpson uncovered an issue that would dominate Adnan’s appeals well into the late 2010s. Poring over the defence file, she noticed that the faxes AT&T sent to police in 1999 bore a cautionary note on the cover sheet: “Outgoing calls only are reliable for locations status. Any incoming calls will NOT be reliable information for location.”

The contested note on the AT&T cover sheet.

Remarkably, none of Adnan’s defence lawyers seems to have noticed this before. Not Gutierrez in 1999, not Brown in 2010. Serial had noticed it, and spent “a good chunk of time investigating this very same disclaimer on the fax cover page from AT&T.” They spoke to the cell-phone experts they were consulting, who said, “As far as the science goes, it shouldn’t matter: incoming or outgoing, it shouldn’t change which tower your phone uses.” Nevertheless, Brown was convinced that the disclaimer gave him new grounds for appeal, and he asked the appeals court to transfer Adnan’s case back down to the Circuit Court for another hearing.

Gutierrez’s competence was (again) at issue on appeal, and the State renewed its request to require the defence to disclose its entire file. Prosecutors argued that its custodian, Rabia, had been publicly leaking snippets. Fairness therefore required that the State be permitted to review everything, especially since Gutierrez was no longer able to defend herself. The State argued that Rabia had already waived confidentiality by sharing the file with Sarah Koenig and her Undisclosed co-hosts. The court agreed and the files were duly released.

The prosecution attached hundreds of pages of these formerly confidential documents to its pleadings, which were filed online. Serial fans—now a global audience of tens of thousands—downloaded them, organized them, and reuploaded them. It’s hard to overstate just how unusual this breach is: Attorney files are sacrosanct; defence lawyers are expected to go to prison rather than divulge them. Rabia’s decision to disclose snippets of these files helped generate media attention, but in the long run, this was bad news for Adnan as the defence files contained information and omissions which damaged his case.

Internet detectives also published the police file. A subreddit named r/serialpodcast, now populated by almost 80,000 members, has become the de facto worldwide discussion forum for Adnan’s case. Feuds between “innocenters” and “guilters” became so vicious that moderators banished many users, who formed competing private subreddits. Many redditors on r/serialpodcast are just random true-crime fans. Others, however, are doctors, lawyers, social workers, or police officers. Some are Baltimore residents who knew key players in the case. Rabia, Susan Simpson, Kristi Vinson, and others read and posted on r/serialpodcast from time to time.

Authentic documents were leaked on Reddit. Guilters realized that the police files in Adnan’s case were public records under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), and raised thousands of dollars to pay for these copies. In mid-September 2015, over 2,500 pages of the Baltimore Police Department file on Adnan’s case were released under the MPIA. Most of this trove is now available online at the vast adnansyedwiki site. Redditors also began paying for and posting full transcripts of the trial and subsequent court hearings.

Instead of relying on news, podcasts, or lawyers’ briefs, redditors could now forge their own theories and conclusions based on a huge trove of original documents. Reddit guilters such as “SalmaanQ,” “justwonderinif,” and “Adnanscell” wrote long posts, hoping to counter the impression left by Serial and its progeny that Adnan is innocent. If some redditors debate with lawyerly precision, it is often because they are lawyers.

It wasn’t long before redditors found damaging material in the files. For instance, it emerged that, on August 21st, 1999, a law student named Ali Pournader interviewed Adnan’s older brother Tanveer Syed (misnamed “Ali”) and wrote a memo for the defence file which recorded that Tanveer had called Adnan “a very good liar, Adnan could lie about anything and you would not be able to tell he is not telling the truth. Adnan could be very convincing.” Tanveer also confirmed that Nisha “received a call from Adnan at 3:30 from Adnan [sic] on the day of the incident.” That wasn’t the only additional confirmation of the Nisha Call. The police file contains notes from an interview on April 1st, 1999, in which Nisha states that she received a call from Adnan “around the time when he got 1st cell phone” during which Adnan “handed phone to Jay to talk to me.” She placed the time of the call “in the afternoon [of January 13th] or maybe later on 4 or 5.” Nisha’s memory was fresher in April 1999 than it would have been at trial 10 months later.

Defence investigator Drew Davis interviewed Stephanie at Hae’s memorial service and reported that she “remembers speaking to Jay and Adnan on January 13, 1999 between about 4:15pm and 5:30pm … she called Adnan on his cell phone and Jay was with him at the time.” Stephanie never told police about this call and her statement would never have come to light had the defence file remained confidential. Davis’s billing records show that on March 8th, he drove to Silver Spring, Maryland, to interview Nisha. Nobody has ever asked Flohr has why he sent Davis on this trip. (Davis died in a car accident in 2014.)

This new information helped redditors explain why Adnan called Nisha in the first place: She was intended to bolster his alibi. Adnan would say he was with Jay on the afternoon of the 13th, Jay would confirm this, and the Nisha and (fortuitous) Stephanie calls would support their story by confirming that Adnan and Jay were indeed together. That plan imploded when Jay broke ranks. No wonder Adnan called him “pathetic” in court. This theory remains speculative because the people who could confirm or deny it—Adnan and perhaps Flohr—aren’t talking. Nevertheless, it is supported by logical inference and statements from people who have no motive to lie.

What the defence file doesn’t contain also speaks volumes. There is no mention of Asia’s letters or of any attempt by Drew Davis to locate her. Her name is mentioned only once in the defence file, in a brief note from a law clerk dated July 13th, 1999: “Asia McClain—saw him in the library @ 3:00—Asia boyfriend saw him too.” This note not only conflicts with Asia’s account, but it was also written four months after Adnan claimed he had “immediately” given his lawyers her letters. The police files contain more crucial background on this. On April 9th, 1999, Adnan’s friend Ja’uan told detectives that Adnan had written “a letter to a girl to type up with his address on it but she got it wrong.” Ja’uan recalled that her name was “Asia?” and that she was in the 12th grade. Asia’s March 2nd letter indeed gives the wrong address for the Baltimore City Jail.

XVI. The court hearing everybody talks about

These disclosures changed Adnan’s fate. Appeals courts ruled that Adnan should get a second hearing, and Judge Martin Welch came out of retirement in February 2016 to preside. Adnan was again represented by Justin Brown. The State of Maryland’s lead attorney was an assistant attorney general named Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah, whose successful defence of Adnan’s conviction earned him the undying hatred of Rabia Chaudry. Adnan’s first hearing made no headlines, but at this one, media representatives from the world over jostled for space. Rabia, to her dismay, was banned from court in case she was called as a witness.

Brown called Gerald Grant, Jr. (2p), who ran a private consulting business, as an expert on cell-phone location. Those expecting to hear him explain why incoming pings are untrustworthy were to be disappointed. Grant merely stated that he would have been concerned about the AT&T fax cover sheet saying data for incoming calls were unreliable, would have pursued the matter further, and would have counselled a defence lawyer to do the same. He did not elaborate on what proportion of incoming calls might be unreliable or why.

For the State, Vignarajah called FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald (2p). Unlike Grant, Fitzgerald explained why some location data for incoming calls might be unreliable. He had spoken with AT&T engineers working in 1999, who told him that incoming phone data might be unreliable if, for instance, the phone travelled rapidly through different coverage zones. Network computers might try to place the incoming call based on the last coverage zone the target phone had transited, not where it was at that moment. Alternatively, if someone with a cell phone registered in Atlanta travelled to Washington, DC with their cell phone off, the network would likely activate the switching centre in Atlanta when it was switched on again, since that is where the phone was last used.

Fitzgerald’s testimony cleared this up: cell-tower data were reliable for outgoing calls, but might be unreliable, in unusual situations, for some incoming calls. These didn’t apply to Adnan; he received most of his calls in Baltimore County, not while rapidly transiting through coverage zones. Asked to judge Waranowitz’s technique, Fitzgerald called it reliable, said he still used similar methods, and affirmed that these methods had been used in innumerable criminal cases in the US. Redditors compiled a list of incoming and outgoing calls from Adnan’s phone which revealed that (reliable) outgoing calls virtually always pinged the same cell tower as incoming calls made within two minutes. And as we’ve seen, the experts consulted by Serial agreed there was no reason to doubt the accuracy of incoming pings. Of course, it’s possible to find other experts prepared to dispute Fitzgerald’s methods, but Adnan needed a scorching refutation of Waranowitz’s testimony and he didn’t get it.

Asia McClain finally testified, dressed to the nines and accompanied by her lawyer and a press entourage. She would later capitalize on her fame by writing a book called Confessions of a Serial Alibi. She denied being pressured by Rabia and insisted that she had seen Adnan at the library on January 13th, 1999. She testified that she sent her letters to Adnan shortly after writing them on the dates they bore. Vignarajah cross-examined her gently but thoroughly. He focused on the second letter, supposedly sent on March 2nd, 1999. Why, he asked, did this letter contain so much information about the case? The implication was that Adnan and his supporters had scanned the search warrant and perhaps Bilal Ahmed’s and Saad Chaudry’s grand jury testimony: “Are you sure you didn’t get that information about fibers from someone who had read Adnan Syed’s March 20 search warrant that referenced that the police were looking for fibers?”

Asia McClain in 2016 (YouTube)

Vignarajah also asked why the March 2nd letter says the “gossip” about Adnan had died down “by now,” even though Woodlawn’s gossip reactor was surely still in meltdown just two days after Adnan’s arrest. He then asked how Asia obtained Adnan’s inmate number, and why she sent the March 2nd letter to the wrong address, just as Ja’uan had stated in his April 9th, 1999, police interview (152p):

Q: Do you have any explanation for why Ja’uan Gordon said that Adnan wrote a letter for a girl to type up named Asia McClain?
A: No I don’t.
Q: The address on the top of the second letter is not 101 East Eager Street is it?
A: I don’t know. Is it? It’s 301 East Eager Street.
Q: Where did you get that address from?
A: I have no idea.
Q: Where did you get that number from that’s next Syed’s name?
A: I don’t remember.
Q: Do you even know what that number is?…
A: I assume it’s some sort of identification number.

Vignarajah clearly believed that the March 2nd letter had been written well after that date in response to a request from Adnan and/or his supporters. He also noted that Asia’s story contradicted Adnan’s claim never to have left the Woodlawn High School campus. How did Asia know that Adnan had “unwitnessed, unaccountable” time between 2.15pm and 8.00pm? For that matter, if he were innocent, how did Adnan know that he needed an alibi for that time window? The State didn’t commit itself to a time of death until Gutierrez requested they do so on July 7th, 1999.

People magazine called Asia’s cross-examination “withering.” Adnan’s lawyers moved into damage control mode. They obtained a handwritten affidavit from Ja’uan Gordon, in which he denied any intention to mislead the court and claimed the “letter” he referred to in April 1999 was a “character letter” to support Adnan’s bail application. Had Asia written one of the 600 character letters Adnan’s lawyers submitted in 1999, the defence would surely have produced it. They did not. Nor did they call Gordon to the witness stand, where he might face cross-examination.

Abe Waranowitz, who had earlier signed an affidavit stating that he had not seen the AT&T fax cover sheet and that it should have prompted more investigation, flew to Baltimore for the hearing. After Judge Welch told the parties to substitute affidavits for witness testimony to avoid prolonging the hearing, Adnan’s lawyers submitted a second affidavit from Waranowitz in which he called the fax cover sheet “ambiguous” and stated that he would not have endorsed the accuracy of some of the records he had analysed during Adnan’s trial had he known of the cover sheet. In all other respects, he stood by his trial testimony. In a LinkedIn post from October 2016, he wrote (bold in original): “I have NOT abandoned my testimony, as some have claimed. The disclaimer should have been addressed in court. Period.

XVII. Maryland appeals courts go back and forth

On June 30th, 2016, Welch granted Adnan relief. Evidence and testimony from the 2016 hearing had convinced him to reverse his prior holding: Gutierrez should have contacted Asia after learning about her “on July 13, 1999.” This contradicts Adnan’s 2012 testimony in Welch’s court that Adnan had given Asia’s letters to his attorneys in early March 1999. Welch then turns to Vignarajah’s argument that the “potential alibi was in fact a scheme manufactured by [Adnan] to secure a false alibi.” Welch calls the State’s theory “quite … compelling” (17p) and “plausible” (19p) but inconclusive: Asia could have gleaned the details in the March 2nd letter from news and gossip (as Asia herself had testified) and she could have called the jail to get Adnan’s inmate identification number (which she never testified to). Remarkably, Welch suggests that the “Asia” mentioned by Gordon could have been “another individual who shares the same name.”

Welch ruled that Gutierrez had erred in failing to contact Asia, but added that the error was harmless “because the crux of the State’s case did not rest on the time of the murder.” The State’s case at trial had rested on Jay’s testimony and the cell-phone records, which “created the nexus between Petitioner and the murder … McClain’s testimony would not have been able to sever this crucial link.” Adnan had better luck on his cell-phone claim: Welch found that the disclaimer cast a “fog of uncertainty” over the cell-phone evidence, undermining confidence in Adnan’s conviction.

Vignarajah appealed Welch’s ruling to the Court of Special Appeals. (At that time, the three-judge intermediate appeals court was the “Court of Special Appeals” and Maryland’s seven-member highest court was called the “Court of Appeals.” A recent law replaced this confusing terminology with more conventional court names.) He had reasons to be optimistic. Just weeks after Welch’s decision, on August 4th, 2016, two sisters, former students of Woodlawn, each provided affidavits to the State. Sister One had been a friend of Asia’s at Woodlawn. Just after Adnan was arrested, she said, Asia had announced that she did not believe Adnan was capable of the crime and that “she believed so much in Adnan’s innocence she would make up a lie to prove he couldn’t have done it.” Asia never mentioned having spoken to Adnan in the library on January 13th. Sister One stated that she had listened to Serial, but assumed nobody would take Asia’s story seriously. When she heard that Adnan had been granted a new trial, she decided to come forward. Sister Two’s affidavit confirmed the basics of Sister One’s. (McClain disputes both accounts.)

In a sign of how contentious Adnan’s case had become, the appeals court ruling was 138 pages long and split 2-1. The majority granted relief, but on different grounds than Judge Welch. The Court first ruled (62p) that Adnan had in fact “waived” the fax cover sheet issue by not raising it in his 2010 appeal. The Court then disappointed the State by ruling that it could not consider the sisters’ affidavits (113p), adding: “We note, however, that if the State does re-prosecute Syed, the State will have the opportunity to present these witnesses at the new trial.”

The majority held that, given that State’s tight timeline, Asia’s testimony about seeing Adnan at the library could have changed the outcome of the case. Judge Kathryn Graeff dissented. The US Supreme Court, she noted, had cautioned courts that “it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel’s defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable.” Here, Graeff argued, there was simply no evidence explaining why Gutierrez had (apparently) not investigated Asia any further. Further, many aspects of Asia’s account, including the letters, could have raised the suspicions of a reasonable defence lawyer.

Vignarajah’s last chance was Maryland’s highest court. On March 8th, 2019, the Court of Appeals denied Adnan relief by a 4-3 vote. The majority agreed with the lower court that the cell-phone issue had been waived. As for Asia’s alibi, the Court held that Gutierrez should have contacted Asia, but that her failure to do so did not harm Adnan’s case. Asia’s testimony would have conflicted with Adnan’s own claim never to have left the Woodlawn campus. In any event, Asia only provided an alibi for a “narrow window of time,” and her testimony would have drawn more attention to Adnan’s own “internally inconsistent” statements: “At best, her testimony would have highlighted Mr. Syed’s failure to account precisely for his whereabouts after school on January 13, 1999.”

Judge Shirley S. Watts agreed with the majority’s decision that Asia’s testimony would not have helped Adnan, but she also endorsed Gutierrez’s decision not to even investigate Asia. Watts details the questions swirling around Asia’s letters and motivation, which raised the possibility that her testimony would have backfired—the jury might have got the damning impression that Adnan was trying to fake an alibi. It was thus “unequivocally” appropriate for Gutierrez not to have investigated Asia further. The three dissenting judges held that Gutierrez erred in not investigating Asia, and that the error harmed Adnan’s defence.

This was Adnan’s last hope in the courts, except for a long-shot appeal to the US Supreme Court, later duly filed and denied. The ruling was a staggering blow to Adnan and his team. Rabia Chaudry tweeted: “I have been processing, through tears and rage, the news since I heard it this afternoon. I am grief stricken but not hopeless. If you think we will give up, you aren't paying attention. Fuck [Vignarajah], may the rest of his life and hereafter be utter shit.” Susan Simpson tweeted, “Grieve like hell, then get some rest, the fight begins again tomorrow.” (To which Rabia replied: “Done grieving. Ready to fight.”) Justin Brown tweeted that he had just spoken to Adnan: “There is not an ounce of quit in him. I repeat: we will not give up.” Colin Miller, for his part, dedicated a tweetstorm and several posts to a critique of the Maryland court’s opinion.

These anguished reactions speak to the confirmation bias that can grip activists (especially lawyers) who have worked for years on one case and long since found excuses or explanations for the evidence against their client. In this world-famous case, Adnan’s advocates were joined inside their filter bubble by tens of thousands of ordinary people. Collectively, Adnan’s supporters forged an alternate reality in which they treated the evidence against Adnan as creationists treat the fossil record—matters which are mentioned, if at all, only to be dismissed with sarcasm or special pleading. The Court of Appeals opinion was a brutal reminder that outside the bubble, most people who study the case carefully come away convinced that Adnan killed Hae.

Now that his appeals had been exhausted, Adnan’s legal case seemed to be over. The #FreeAdnan hashtag faded, and the Undisclosed team moved on to new cases of potential wrongful conviction (many of which are much stronger than Adnan’s). Rabia never gave up, but she also turned to new projects, including a book on food and family called Fatty Fatty Boom Boom. Adnan, it seemed, would have to wait for parole hearings to have a chance at freedom. Meanwhile, on Reddit and elsewhere, most of those who had studied the fresh revelations from the case files (rather than documentaries or podcasts) concluded that Adnan was guilty.

XVIII. From #FreeAdnan to #WeFreedAdnan

On September 19th, 2022, Adnan Syed walked out of a Baltimore courtroom a free man with no criminal record. This remarkable development occurred because Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO), the same agency that prosecuted him in 2000, had filed a “motion to vacate” Adnan’s conviction. It was filed by Becky Feldman, a former Baltimore public defender who had been hired in 2020 to review cases of juveniles sentenced to long prison terms. As she reviewed Adnan’s case, Feldman became convinced that his trial had been unfair. Feldman had been hired by Marilyn Mosby, a progressive prosecutor who had initiated some reforms, but also presided over an increase in Baltimore’s homicide rate.

By September 2022, Mosby had been defeated in the Democratic primary for State’s Attorney by her fellow Democrat Ivan Bates and was facing federal fraud charges for misappropriating COVID relief funds. Adnan was now represented by Erica J. Suter, Director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School. Suter, of course, did not oppose the motion to vacate. The motion begins by claiming that Suter and the Baltimore SAO had collaborated on a “nearly year-long investigation” of Adnan’s case and stresses that: “Investigative efforts are ongoing.” The motion then insists that the prosecution is not “asserting at this time that Defendant is innocent.” However, the investigation had uncovered so many problems that Adnan’s conviction must be vacated.

What were these problems? The motion first argues that “two new suspects”—who are never named—had been developed. One suspect had been identified based on a decades-old note found in the prosecution file, which seemed to contain a threat against Hae from someone other than Adnan. This information, Feldman argued, had been improperly concealed from the defence. The motion then turned to Hae’s car. A person “related to the family” of one of the suspects owned a house “on 300 the block of Edgewood Road for many years.” (There is no “Edgewood Road” in Baltimore; Hae’s car was found on Edgewood Street. On the very same page, Feldman refers to “Edgewood Avenue,” compounding the confusion.) The motion then turns to the other “Suspect,” and states that he had “attacked a woman unknown to him while she was in her vehicle.”

The motion then mentions “another one of the suspects” who “engaged in multiple instances of rape and sexual assault” of vulnerable victims. “One of the suspects,” it argues, had been “improperly cleared” based on a faulty polygraph. The new evidence supposedly implicating these anonymous suspects is never set out. The motion argues that Adnan’s conviction was shaky, citing the fax cover sheet and contradictions in Jay’s testimony. Amazingly, it even cites a scene from HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, without mentioning that the show was produced with the close involvement of Adnan’s strongest supporter. The motion even attacks Baltimore homicide detective William Ritz by name, accusing him of “misconduct” in other cases. But Feldman quickly backtracks, conceding that the “State does not make any claims at this time regarding the integrity of the police investigation.”

A hearing was scheduled for Monday, September 19th, 2022, just days after the motion had been filed. This was amazingly fast for Baltimore’s overburdened courts. Feldman only emailed Hae’s brother Young Lee on Friday, September 16th, just one business day before the hearing. Lee lives in California and could not arrange transportation that quickly. Feldman offered him the chance to participate through a Zoom link. Lee initially agreed, but then decided he wanted to be present at the hearing. His lawyers filed a motion asking for a one-week delay. They cited provisions of Maryland’s Constitution guaranteeing that crime victims would be treated with “dignity, respect, and sensitivity.”

The trial judge, Melissa Phinn, denied Lee’s request, and the hearing went forward as scheduled. Lee addressed the courtroom on Zoom (33p):

Thank you for giving this time to speak. I’m sorry if I—sorry, my heart is kind of pounding right now. … I personally wanted to be there in person, but Your Honor, it’s—I’ve been living with this for 20 plus years and every day when I think it’s over, when I look and think it’s over or it’s ended, it’s over. It always comes back. And it’s not just me, killing me and killing my mother and it’s really tough to just going through this again and again and again. … I hear that there’s a motion to vacate judgment and I thought—honestly I felt honestly betrayed, why is my—I kept thinking to myself, why is the State doing this. … This is not a podcast for me, it’s just real life, never ending after 20 plus years.

Judge Phinn then signed a cursory order granting the State’s motion to vacate Adnan’s conviction. No witnesses had testified, and no new evidence had been introduced—not even the “prosecution note” supposedly identifying a threat to kill Hae. Phinn ordered bailiffs to unshackle Adnan right there and then and permit him to exit the court, another unprecedented move. Adnan gave no statement to reporters.

Amy J. Berg, director of the HBO documentary, tweeted that the Lee family’s lawyer resembled a “used car salesman at best.” Adnan’s lawyer, Erica Suter, told reporters: “We now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known, that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair. Evidence was hidden from him, evidence that pointed to other people as the killers.” News reports implied that Baltimore detectives were hot on the trail of “new” suspects. Technically, Adnan also remained a suspect. However, case observers predicted that Marilyn Mosby would drive the final stake through Adnan’s conviction by entering a nolle prosequi motion: A declaration that the Baltimore SAO had no intention of trying Adnan again. This happened on October 11th, 2022.

The ostensible reason was the result of highly sensitive “touch” DNA testing on Hae’s shoes, which showed traces of four unknown male DNA donors but not Adnan. But even if Adnan’s DNA had been on the shoes, it would hardly have been conclusive. Ultra-sensitive modern DNA tests detect innumerable red-herring samples, and shoes are notorious for being veritable Petri dishes of random DNA. And Hae’s DNA wasn’t found on her own shoes. The SAO’s office nevertheless pronounced that, since Adnan had been “excluded” as the source of the DNA on Hae’s shoes, “the State’s Attorney’s office has determined that Adnan Syed was not involved in the death of Hae Min Lee.”

XIX. The two “new” suspects

Many observers of the case begged to differ. Trial Judge Wanda Heard submitted an affidavit in which she stated she could not recall (37p) “any evidence or testimony that Mr. Syed handled the shoes of Hae Min Lee. The absence of touch DNA on her shoes would seem to be an unusual basis to eliminate Mr. Syed as Ms. Lee’s killer in the face of the overwhelming and riveting testimony of the eyewitness … Jay Wilds.” If Heard had been accused of mishandling the case, one might suspect her of trying to defend her reputation, but her conduct of the trial has never been at issue.

One of the most prolific redditor “guilters,” SalmaanQ, wrote a two-part post entitled “National Lampoon’s Vacation of Adnan’s Conviction.” Like all other case observers, he easily identified the two “new” suspects. Alonzo Sellers had to be the suspect “improperly cleared” by polygraph, since he was the only suspect who took one. And as a quick search of online public records revealed, Sellers had indeed gone on to accumulate arrests after Adnan’s conviction, including for assaults on women. Suspect #2 was Bilal Ahmed, who had helped Adnan obtain his cell phone before the murder and then helped him prepare for trial. Bilal had vanished from the radar after October 14th, 1999, when he was caught with his pants down in a vehicle with a half-naked 14-year-old Bosnian refugee boy and jars of Vaseline and hand lotion. Bilal had a photo of Adnan Syed on his person when he was arrested.

The Motion to Vacate mentions one of the suspect’s “multiple instances of rape and sexual assault”—a clear reference to Bilal—but conceals the details, leading many observers to conclude that these were crimes against women. In fact, Bilal had been sentenced on December 15th, 2017, to 16-and-a-half years in federal prison for sexually assaulting young males in his dental practice. He had put boys under anaesthesia and then molested them; one of them awoke to find Bilal’s penis in his mouth. This was followed by a further conviction for Medicaid fraud in the amount of $5 million. In any event, Feldman provided no proof that Alonzo Sellers even knew Hae. Bilal knew of her but had no motive to kill her. Nor did the State offer any explanation for why Jay would have involved himself in a murder plot with either (or both?) of these men, both of whom were strangers to him.

So what about the “note” indicating that someone (presumably Bilal) had threatened Hae? Feldman had not submitted it in evidence, so journalists could only guess. However, Kevin Urick, the trial prosecutor (by now in private practice), knew exactly what Feldman was talking about because he had written the note in question. On November 1st, 2022, the Baltimore Banner published a picture of the note, which indeed contained the phrase “He told her that he would make her disappear; he would kill her.” According to Urick, the “he” in that sentence was Adnan Syed.

Context suggests that these notes were from an interview with Bilal’s estranged wife, conducted sometime in late 1999 or early 2000. According to Urick, she had stated that Adnan had threatened Hae. Since that information was not exculpatory for Adnan, it did not have to be revealed to the defence. The note also stated that Adnan and Bilal had “talked about police ability to determine time of death” and asked Bilal’s wife (a doctor) about her “experience re time of death.” Urick confirmed that nobody had ever contacted him to ask him about the note’s meaning.

In response, Mosby released a furious statement declaring that prior prosecutors had “severely mishandled this case” and were “try[ing] to save face, further traumatizing the victim’s family and Mr. Syed due to their misdeeds.” Having thrown Urick under the bus, Mosby backed up and ran him over repeatedly:

[Urick was] the same prosecutor that engaged in prior Brady violations and questionable behavior in this case, which included withholding exculpatory hair evidence; attempting to prevent inconsistent statements of a witness from being disclosed to the defense; and attempting to hide from defense a very favorable plea deal given to the primary witness. … Clearly, Urick has serious credibility issues. … We do not believe Urick’s recent self-serving attribution to Mr. Syed.

Court watchers could scarcely believe their eyes. The statement read as if it had been written by Adnan’s defence lawyers. Mosby cited no evidence for any of these charges, and seemed unconcerned that no court had ever found Adnan’s prosecutors liable for any misconduct. Nor did she seem to care that, by denouncing Urick as an unethical liar, she risked undermining every conviction in which he had participated. Nevertheless, Adnan was now a free man with a clean record. He was hired by Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, which Georgetown celebrated with a fulsome press release. Adnan gave a speech at his former mosque, thanking members for their support. He has not, however, agreed to any further interviews, undoubtedly a wise move on his part.

XX. A convicted murderer once more

The dismissal of charges turned out to be yet another false ending in a case full of them. Young Lee filed an appeal of the motion to vacate, alleging that his rights as a crime victim had been violated by the hasty hearing. The Attorney General of Maryland joined Lee’s appeal. The line-up for these appeals was bizarre: On one side were Baltimore City prosecutors and Adnan’s defence attorneys, who argued that the hearing was fair. On the other side were Young Lee and the Attorney General of the State of Maryland. Lawyers agreed that the appeal raised complex issues: How much participation were victims’ relatives entitled to? Did Mosby’s decision to “nol pros” the charges against Adnan render the case moot? What kind of relief could the appeals court grant?

Rabia’s response to the Lee family’s appeal was predictable: “Hae Min Lee’s family has appealed Adnans release and is demanding the motion to vacate his conviction, which no longer exists, be done over. Unprecedented. Batshit crazy bullshit. … My official statement about all this is that anyone committed to harassing an innocent man instead of identifying the source of the DNA on Hae’s shoes can fuck right off.” Many of Adnan’s supporters have gone further, accusing the Lee family of being “brainwashed,” dupes, or complicit in racism and Islamophobia.

Rabia had good reason to be apprehensive. On March 28th, 2023, the Maryland Court of Appeals, by vote of 2 to 1, defied the expectations of just about every observer and reinstated Adnan’s murder conviction. Once again, the opinion was long (87 pages) and split. The majority stated (29p): “We share many of Mr. Lee’s concerns about how the proceedings were conducted.” The majority vindicated every criticism of the hearing: Lee should have been given more notice; there was no reason to hold the hearing so quickly, given that the new “investigation” had been going on for almost a year; insufficient evidence was presented to justify vacating Adnan’s conviction; the DNA evidence was irrelevant; the prosecutors never explained why it believed the two new suspects “committed the murder without Mr. Syed”; a closed-chamber meeting before the hearing was improper; the State had no reason to keep its evidence secret; and Judge Phinn’s legal reasoning was superficial.

The Court also voided Mosby’s decision to drop the case. They conceded this was an extraordinary step, since prosecutors have near-total discretion over whether or not to pursue charges. However, the Court noted that appeals courts could overrule prosecutors in exceptional cases, and this “unique” case was one of those. The dissent argued that Phinn’s hearing was adequate, especially since Maryland law does not grant victims even the right to be present at a Motion to Vacate hearing, much less to make a statement. Phinn, therefore, had exceeded requirements by allowing Lee to speak at all.

The “used car salesman” seems to have been pretty convincing. The dissent’s view may yet prevail, since Adnan’s lawyers have already vowed to appeal to the Maryland Supreme Court. But as of this writing, Adnan is a convicted murderer once more. Nothing will change for him in the short term, however, since the appeals court provided that its ruling would not come into force for 60 days, giving the parties time to contemplate next steps. What happens next is anybody’s guess. The current Baltimore State’s Attorney, Ivan Bates, gave an interview to Rolling Stone in 2018 in which he endorsed the claims of Adnan’s supporters, called the State’s evidence “nonexistent” and Jay “absolutely terrible,” and pledged that, if elected, he would start the case “all over.” If no deal is reached, Adnan will have to report back to prison once his 60 day grace period has elapsed.

XXI. Conclusion: The pitfalls of true-crime journalism

Sarah Koenig’s reaction to the vacation of Adnan’s conviction was curiously muted. Serial had long since moved on to other subjects in subsequent seasons, and Koenig has been reluctant to comment on the many twists and turns in the case since the show’s first season ended. A perfunctory episode recorded after the vacation hearing—titled “Adnan Is Out”—lasts only 16 minutes. Koenig speculates about who the new suspects might be, then ruminates in her usual way about how “a kid” gets convicted on “evidence this shaky.” She calls the decision “a triumph of fairness,” but complains that the system “took 20 years to self-correct.”

More than anything else, this final episode shows how outdated Koenig’s knowledge had become. Koenig was once the undisputed expert on Adnan’s case; now she appears naïve and ill-informed. She seems to be unaware of revelations contained in the defence and police files, she appears to think the “new suspects” are fresh leads, and she seems to believe that detectives will reopen Hae’s murder case. Although they supposedly began reinvestigating Adnan’s case in October 2021, Baltimore prosecutors and police haven’t issued any statements detailing progress on the “two suspects.” The number of people who believe there is an “ongoing investigation” dwindles with every passing day.

There will be no new investigation because (as the Baltimore Police Department surely knows) there is no point: The evidence against Adnan wasn’t “shaky,” it was compelling. In a 2015 interview, Kevin Urick described the case as “pretty much a run-of-the-mill domestic violence murder.” He was right. The motive was sexual jealousy, the oldest one known to man. Adnan also had opportunity: multiple witnesses recalled him asking Hae for a ride, which put him alone with her at the time of her death. And he had means: He was tall and athletic, easily capable of slamming Hae’s head into the car window, stunning her, before he strangled her. It only takes minutes for an enraged man to kill a woman with his bare hands, and studies have found that about a third of men who kill their intimate partners had no prior history of violence. The evidence against Adnan presented at trial was sufficient and more came to light later. Adnan’s trial wasn’t perfect—no trial is—and his sentence may have been excessive, but there is no reason to doubt that Adnan Syed strangled Hae Min Lee to death on January 13th, 1999.

Adnan’s case follows a decades-old pattern in “true-crime” journalism. A writer or producer creates a superficially convincing documentary or book that relies on partisan sources such as the defendant, his lawyers, and his family. More often than not, the documentary commits errors typical of legal novices (or lawyers with an axe to grind). It dismisses the original trial as an afterthought, valuable only as a source of soundbites. It insists on a level of proof beyond what the justice system (or common sense) demands. It treats routine compromises involved in prosecuting criminals as sinister skulduggery. It obsesses over individual pieces of evidence or testimony without considering how all the evidence fits together. It demands the State’s evidence be pristine and conclusive, while excusing gaping logical flaws in the defendant’s own arguments.

Most importantly, bad true-crime documentaries provide no coherent alternate theory of the case that is more convincing than the prosecution’s theory at trial. Not all true-crime documentaries fail this test, but most do, including recent popular documentaries about Steven Avery (Making a Murderer) and Jens Soering (Killing for Love). Serial and all the other documentaries about Adnan’s case fall into this category. They critique the State’s evidence and motives and actions endlessly (sometimes justifiably), but when it comes time to make a more convincing case than the prosecution, they retreat into speculation, hypotheticals, generalizations, innuendo, and hand-waving.

These documentaries do real harm. By pretending to be objective, they falsify history. They promote a jaundiced, convict’s-eye view of the justice system, fostering unjustified doubts about its effectiveness. They subject the survivors of terrible crimes to additional anguish, and often concerted online attacks, and in their search for alternate suspects, they defame innocent people. They distract attention from real, but less dramatic, problems with the justice system. And sometimes, as in Adnan’s case, they change the real-world outcome of the case they portray. As Rabia reluctantly acknowledges, Adnan would never have been released had Serial not been made.

Few observers would have objected had a remorseful Adnan been released on parole after 23 years of excellent prison conduct. Instead, he was freed based on his own false claims and the biased media coverage they generated. Hae Min Lee’s surviving family have had to watch as her murderer is feted as a folk hero and victim-protagonist of a story in which she has been marginalized. Many of those who celebrated Adnan’s release still have no idea how strong the evidence against him was. Even so, they donated money, wrote letters and op-eds, and denounced the supposed cruelty and injustice of the system that convicted him. They were all deceived.

There is hope, though. A century ago, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called sunlight “the best of disinfectants.” Before the Internet, readers and viewers had no way of judging wrongful-conviction stories except by visiting the court archives, tracking down witnesses, and spending a small fortune to copy case files. The Internet has changed this. It can expose both genuine injustices and manufactured ones. When a flawed or biased documentary gains enough traction, it will now be dissected by an online audience. Already, there are books and podcasts and documentaries (also of varying quality) rebutting the arguments made in famous true-crime documentaries, to say nothing of blogs and Internet forums where, in addition to white-knuckle rants, there are analyses far more penetrating and plausible than anything Netflix or HBO has produced.

Another common-law legal maxim calls cross-examination the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” This is an exaggeration, but not a ridiculous one. A disciplined cross-examination can destroy flimsy arguments and false narratives. Now, millions of people online can “cross-examine” the evidence themselves. Scrutiny of genuine wrongful convictions can dismantle prosecution arguments and set innocent prisoners free. It can also do the opposite, picking apart false claims and biased narratives and validating the verdicts judges or juries arrived at in relative obscurity. The historical record should be founded on a commitment to truth, logical coherence, and a balanced consideration of all the evidence, not the selective narratives of glossy media productions which hide bias behind a pretence of objectivity.

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