In my previous post I included links to two podcasts that brought Adnan’s Syed’s murder conviction to my attention. I strongly recommend the investment of time needed to listen to them.
They not only detail an interesting “true crime” story, they reveal a lot about the American judicial system, particularly with regard to the city of Baltimore in Maryland.
17 year old Adnan Sayed was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee on 13 January 1999. The following year he was tried and convicted and has spent the subsequent years in prison.
Rabia Chaudry is a friend of Adnan Syed and his family, and was directly or indirectly responsible for both the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts. Her book, Adnan’s Story: The Truth, gives us more than what the title states. While Adnan’s story is central, Chaudry also includes a very personal account of her own experiences in relation to Adnan’s case and the sad cost to Adnan’s family. The book also gives exactly what the titles states, with sections written by Adnan as well as facsimiles of some of his letters to the author.
Chaudry covers each aspect of the case, from Hae’s disappearance, the discovery of her body, Adnan’s arrest, trial and conviction, her contacting of journalist Sarah Koenig and the effect Koenig’s Serial podcast had in kindling media interest. She also examines the role perceptions of Adnan’s religion played. Even in a pre- 9/11 America there was significant suspicion against Muslims (1), and part of the “evidence” collated for the prosecution was a document presenting claims about Islam that could help frame Hae’s murder into a kind of ‘honour killing”. Chaudry only became aware of the document when it was presented to her by Sarah Koenig, and was shocked to realise that it seemed like Koenig might think the contents were valid.
So much of the case against Syed doesn’t seem to add up. The main evidence presented consists of the testimony of Jay Wilds whose story changed significantly every time he told it, as well as phone records that were used to “prove” Syed was at the place where his ex-girlfriends body was buried around the time she was allegedly being buried.
Apparently an incoming call to Syed’s cell phone registered (pinged) on the closest communications tower to where Hae’s body was later discovered, while he was allegedly disposing of the body – “proving” he was there at the crucial time. However the phone company’s document listing the call details clearly and specifically states: “Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will not be considered reliable information for location” (click for access to pdf file). The prosecution ignored that instruction and the defence missed it.
[Later investigation showed that cell tower pings have nothing to do with the closest tower to the phone. A call can be picked up by any tower within range, depending on the volume of calls being handled at the time. Also, it seems the timing of the burial was assumed rather than known. An assumption based on the timing of the call, trying to fit the burial time to the phone record rather than vice versa. Autopsy evidence reviewed on Undisclosed challenges that burial timing]
The defence also missed the opportunity to call a witness who could provide Adnan with an alibi for the period when the murder was said to be taking place. A classmate came forward to reveal she had seen and spoken to Adnan in the library after school while he was waiting for the start of track practice – an appointment on the afternoon of the murder that his track coach said that Adnan had kept. He was therefore in the library talking to his classmate during the time he was allegedly murdering Hae.
Even though Syed’s attorney was notified of the alibi, she declined to follow it up for his defence, even misleading her client to believe she had approached the witness but had discovered she’d been mistaken about the date of the library meeting.
Facing investigation by detectives with a questionable track record (2), and defended by defence attorney suffering declining health who was soon to be disbarred(3), and a seemingly dodgy prosecutor of whom Chaudry has written, “the actual truth is not really important…only winning a conviction is”(4); Adnan (and justice) probably didn’t stand a chance.
As mentioned at the end of that previous post, Syed has now been granted a (long overdue) new trial. He has served 18 years of a life plus thirty year sentence for a murder he most likely didn’t commit. And there’s a high probability that the real murderer has remained free.
“Maybe it sounds crazy, but I could never describe the pain of how it felt to believe that everyone thought I was a murderer. And not just of anyone, but the murderer of one of my closest friends. Someone who loved and trusted me… when people say I am a manipulative, lying murderer, they are not just saying I killed Hae. They are saying that I left her body lying in the dirt like garbage, and went about my life as if it was nothing. As if she was nothing.” (Adnan Syed)
(1) I recall a 1998 (pre- 9/11) film called The Seige. The film portrays terrorism in New York City that leads to the martial law and the rounding up and imprisonment of all men of Arab descent.
Chaudry also mentions another movie, and how that “highly popular film Not Without My Daughter, came to define Muslim family dynamics for the West”.
She also describes some of her personal experiences of being the target of bigotry.
The murder of Hae Min Lee was investigated by Detectives William Ritz and Gregory MacGillivary. To date,
threefour* defendants who were convicted of murder pursuant to investigations by either Ritz or MacGillivary have been found to have been wrongfully convicted and released from prison. (see here)