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An HBO documentary revisits the Serial murder with The Case Against Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed
Photo: Syed family/HBO
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Part of what made the first season of Serial so engrossing was the sense that listeners were investigating the murder of Hae Min Lee right along with host Sarah Koenig and her inquisitive cadre of podcasters. The granular detail with which it explored the killing—which took place in early 1999—helped to ignite worldwide podcast fever in 2014. It inspired heated online conversation, amateur sleuthing, ridiculous (and maybe not so ridiculous) Reddit-based theorizing, and even a podcast about the podcast, released by this very site. Much more importantly, Serial also affected the investigation of the case, most specifically by encouraging a particular witness to come forward, but in other ways too detailed to get into here.


The four-part HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed aims to pick up where Serial left off, but struggles mightily in its first two hours—three were sent to reviewers in advance—to decide what it wants to be. Instead of introducing newbies to the details of the case, it spends a good chunk of time introducing the victim, giving voice to Hae Min Lee both with words from her journal and with stylish animation. It seems like a direct response to one (of many) Serial criticisms, and really a criticism of the true-crime genre: They tend to give short shrift to murder victims, to the point of treating them more like objects than humans.

Giving more attention to the victim is a worthy thing to do, but it also means that people new to the story of Lee and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed might miss the forest for the trees, at least in the first hour. And when it’s not setting the emotional table by introducing its characters, the first half of Case gets almost too granular—introducing another suspect familiar to podcast listeners, then finding and maybe dismissing him, for instance.


It’s also an odd choice to spend so much time on one victim when clearly The Case Against Adnan Syed is focused mostly on what it believes to be another victim: Syed himself. Although ace director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West Of Memphis) claims to have started the project without preconceived notions—and there’s no reason to doubt her—it’s clear that Case is inclined to believe that Syed is innocent, or at the very least that he deserves a new trial. If they were interested in truth in advertising, HBO and Berg might have called this thing The Case Against Adnan Syed (Is Pretty Flimsy When You Look At It Closely). It should also be noted that Rabia Chaudry, who has been Syed’s friend and public advocate since the beginning, is both an executive producer and important figure in the doc.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the case, for those new or in need of a refresher: Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee went missing in January of 1999. In early February, her body was found in a park—she had been strangled. In late February, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested and charged with her murder, based largely on statements given to police by his friend Jay Wilds. Wilds claimed that Syed admitted to strangling Lee, and that Wilds helped Syed bury her body. Syed has steadfastly maintained that though he spent time with Wilds on the day the murder supposedly took place, that he had nothing to do with it and doesn’t know why Wilds told the story that he did. Syed was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years. He has appealed the conviction in subsequent years, and the conviction was—mild spoiler alert—vacated in 2016. The State of Maryland is currently appealing that appeal, and a decision on whether Syed will get a new trial will likely come in the summer of 2019. In the meantime, he remains in prison.


If it were as simple as it sounds, neither Serial nor The Case Against would exist. The documentary goes further than the podcast in casting doubt on Wilds’ story and his credibility: Even those he considered friends tell of his propensity for lying. Berg tracked down a recent ex-girlfriend of Wilds’, who paints an ugly picture of abuse and dishonesty. And with regard to the central question of this whole case—if Jay Wilds was lying about the murder, why?—it paints a detailed and convincing (though obviously speculative) answer about overeager/dirty cops and a broken system. It’s The Case’s most compelling narrative, told via uncomfortable new interviews with Jay’s friends and corroborating witnesses, specifically Jennifer Pusateri, whose obvious agitation marks one of the doc’s most gripping moments. Along with the two chief legal reasons Syed is appealing—ineffective counsel and the admissibility of cellphone records that were central to the case—this portrait of Wilds’ journey makes a solid case for a new trial. (Half of the Serial subreddit is cheering now; the other half is angrily typing.)

Unfortunately for The Case, most of that information doesn’t show up until episode three, so the best way to watch it might be to hold off a few weeks and binge it. The fourth and final episode—again, not screened for reviewers—is scheduled to air March 31, and in an interview with Vulture, Berg all but promises some kind of bombshell. When asked whether she thinks she got closer to solving the case than Serial’s Sarah Koenig, she responds, “I don’t want to give the end away.”


Short of someone—or someones—changing their story completely, though, there will never be a tidy ending to this horrific case. It’s just too complex and twisted. Although it starts a little bit rocky and unfocused, The Case Against Adnan Syed eventually does an admirable job of focusing—doubters might say shaping—the various stories into something plausible. It seems silly to hope for a huge revelation in its final hour, but with such a fascinating case, it would be even sillier to doubt that another unexpected twist might arise.

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