The influence of Serial’s first season continues to be felt even five years after its premiere affected the medium of podcasting (and the lives of its subjects), as seen in the airing of last night’s The Case Against Adnan Syed on HBO. Serial’s coverage of Adnan’s story captured not only the continued attention of the public eye, but also that of the legal realm, with the Sarah Koenig-hosted program—and its popularity—influencing Syed’s case to be considered for retrial over a decade after his initial conviction.
The same weekend as The Case Against Adnan Syed’s airing, however, the Maryland High Court determined, by a vote of 4-3, that the Syed case did not deserve a retrial, adding yet another confusing and frustrating chapter to an already confusing and frustrating story. Here’s everything you need to know about the case, the controversy, and the story of a retrial that never ended up happening.
On January 13th, 1999, 18-year old Baltimore high schooler Hae Min Lee went missing. Four weeks later, her body was found in a nearby park showing signs of strangulation. Following an investigation into cell phone records, Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested for the crime of first degree murder. By February 25th, 2000, in addition to first degree murder, Syed would go on to be found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery, landing him a sentence of life in prison plus thirty years.
Aside from a handful of people close to Syed, discussions of Syed’s purported innocence would remain sparse until the first season of Serial debuted in 2014 and brought discussions around the case—and the number of potential ways in which Adnan Syed may be innocent when it comes to Hae Min Lee’s murder—into the spotlight. Adnan’s trial itself was messy enough – the case’s first appearance before the court was declared a mistrial after the jury overheard the judge accusing Syed’s attorney, Christine Gutierrez, of being a liar.
Gutierrez passed away in 2004, three years after being disbarred due to her worsening condition from multiple sclerosis affecting her work. It wasn’t her health getting in the way of performing her job that proved to be a source of controversy though, but rather claims from both Syed regarding Gutierrez’ insufficiency when it comes to fully interrogating and investigating alibi witnesses that could have potentially absolved Syed of his accused crimes.
No matter who is shepherding the discussion of Syed’s potential innocence – Koenig, the armchair sleuths of the internet, or Adnan himself – everything usually comes back to Asia McClain.
Reports of cell phone tower activity in the area and witness testimonies led to the jury concluding that Adnan Syed murdered Hae Min Lee in a Best Buy parking lot on the night of her disappearance. Asia McClain, however, found that hard to believe, as she was convinced (even writing as much in a letter to a convicted Syed) that she had seen Adnan in the school’s library at the time in which Hae was supposedly murdered.
Despite the implications of this alibi – which stands not only in contradiction to the claim that Adnan was in a Best Buy parking lot that night, but also Syed’s own that he was busy that night at track practice and his mosque – it was not pursued by Gutierrez in front of the jury. The attorney’s lack of investigation into this route is what prompted Syed to make a failed appeal in 2003, and for Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch to grant Syed’s request for a retrial back in 2016… A decision that was just overturned.
Reports surrounding the reversal of the retrial show that High Court officials agree with Adnan and conclude that Gutierrez failed to properly consider the claims made by McClain. Where disagreement sets in is the degree to which McClain’s testimonies, if found true, affect Adnan’s claimed innocence and the collection of evidence suggesting otherwise.
“[McClain’s statement] does little more than call into question the time that the state claimed Ms. Lee was killed and does nothing to rebut the evidence establishing Mr. Syed’s motive and opportunity to kill Ms. Lee,” stated Baltimore’s court of appeals. They concluded that despite Gutierrez’ lack of consideration for McClain’s statements, there was no need for a new trial due to McClain’s statements, even if true, “could not have affected the outcome of the case because that evidence did not negate Mr. Syed’s criminal agency.”
This development has done little to deter Syed’s legal representatives, with the team’s principal attorney Justin C. Brown admitting to having three other “avenues of relief” in proceeding with attaining a retaining. Brown, refusing to give up hope, stated that “We are devastated by the Court of Appeals’ decision but we will not give up on Adnan Syed.”
So it seems like we’re exactly where we were 6 years ago, or rather nearly 20 years ago. Do you think Adnan did it?