The Case Against Adnan Syed

I’ve written several posts about Adnan Syed’s conviction and imprisonment for the murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/category/adnan-syed/

Those posts have been about books and podcasts looking at the case.

Coming soon is a TV series from HBO.

I’m hoping that I’ll eventually get to see it. My best chance of doing so would be if it is released on DVD.

The Case Against Adnan Syed: what happened after Serial?

In a new docuseries, the case at the centre of the phenomenally popular podcast is brought back into the light with sensitivity and insight

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/feb/28/the-case-against-adnan-syed-what-happened-after-serial

Advertisements

Confessions of a Serial Alibi by Asia McClain Chapman

serialI really wish that I could write something that would do justice to this book and encourage others to read it. Preferably they would read it after familiarising themselves with the background of the case in which Asia McClain (now Chapman) features as an alibi witness.

I came to his book after listening to the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts, and after reading Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry.

Clearly most people wouldn’t want to go to such preparatory lengths before reading a 240 page book, so here is the basic background.

On January 13 1999 Hae Min Lee, a student of Woodlawn High School in Maryland was reported as missing. On February 9th her partially buried body was discovered.

Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged with her murder and convicted on the evidence of a witness who claimed he’d helped Syed dispose of the body, backed by cell-phone records that placed him at the burial site a few hours after Hae’s disappearance.

But all was not as it seemed.

The witness’s story changed significantly every time he told it. His most recent version now claims the burial took place several hours after the phone records allegedly placed them at the burial site.
Additionally, the phone data placing Syed’s phone at the site at the previously claimed time of the burial relates to an incoming call, and the phone company’s cover sheet clearly stated that incoming calls could not be used to identify a phone’s location. By some “quirk of fate” the prosecuting attorneys failed to include the cover sheet when providing the defence attorney with the phone records, leaving them in the dark about that disqualifying statement.

There is far more to this story than can be told in detail in a few paragraphs in a blog post, a few more of the issues are mentioned on my other blog here

Asia McClain Chapman’s book looks at another significant problem with the case against Syed. He actually had an alibi for the time the prosecutors claimed he was killing Hae.
Asia McClain was that alibi witness. She saw him in the public library and spoke to him for about 20 minutes at the same time the prosecution claim he was committing the crime. However, for reasons unknown, her offer of that alibi was ignored by Syed’s defence team and she was never called upon to give her evidence at the trial.

McClain had no particular allegiance to Syed. Both he and Hae Min Lee were classmates she didn’t know well, at best they were friends of friends. Her interest was in allowing the truth to be found, and in telling what she knew to help that process. She didn’t get that opportunity at the original trial.  When Adnan was found guilty, she assumed justice had been done and put the situation behind her.

Or so she thought…

Years later she was approached to give evidence at an appeal hearing. Due to concerns about the issue being raised again, and a suspicion that Syed’s defence team could exploit her to free a guilty man, she sought legal advice. Unfortunately she spoke to Kevin Urick, the prosecutor at the original trial and his advice led her to reject the defence team’s requests.

Because of Kevin Urick I saw Adnan as being 100 percent guilty and deserving of a lengthy prison stay I didn’t want to contribute to some sleazy underhanded attempt to get a convicted murderer out of prison.

Unfortunately for Urick, through the Serial podcast, McClain became aware that at the appeal hearing, he misrepresented her and their conversation, giving false information about her original offer to be an alibi witness and why she had declined to give that evidence at the appeal.
.

It’s a funny thing to find out through the grapevine that another person has misspoken about your words and intentions. It’s another thing to find out through a podcast simultaneously with millions of other people. From the moment I heard Urick’s post conviction testimony I felt I had been taken advantage of. In my entire life I can’t recall ever feeling so duped and foolish.

 

I know that when Kevin Urick gave that testimony he had no idea that it would be featured in an internationally-known podcast. However, in life such as in court, that’s like saying that a dirt bag who rapes a woman at a public concert has no idea that other people are videotaping it. That my friends is the power of God. Proverbs 12:19 says, “Truthful lips endue forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.”

When I think about Urick I feel so violated and shameful in the sense that my only faults were being naïve and trusting him.

 

It made me sick to my stomach to know a conversation with me had been discussed without my knowledge or consent, that a falsehood had been seen as fact. Not to mention the idea of that falsehood being used as the basis for denying Adnan’s appeal. Hell, anyone’s appeal. We [Asia and her husband] agreed that we needed to make ourselves available to do whatever was needed to set the wrong right.

Above I’ve probably featured too many quotes from the book, but I think those quotes demonstrate a significant aspect of this case – the prosecution’s tactic of falsifying and misrepresenting  evidence to obtain a desired result. Their desire to win at all costs – even the cost of the truth and justice. Getting A result (the only result they’d counted on) was more important to them than getting the RIGHT result.

The above experience with Urick wasn’t the last experience of this type for the author. When she eventually had her day in court to present her testimony to another appeal,  she was again subjected to a similar disregard for the truth by the prosecutor at that court, Thiru Vignarajah (then Deputy Attorney General of Maryland); having her good character attacked and suffering all kinds of accusations about her motives for providing an alibi for Syed.

It might be said in the prosecutor’s defence that it was his job to challenge her and her testimony in court, however, according to McClain Chapman, his personal attacks continued in the media long after his job in court had been done.

…he continues to slander my character and lie about my motivations both in court and via any press conference awarded to him.

Up to the time of publishing the book, Asia McClain Chapman has maintained an uncertainty about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. All along she claims her only desire is to tell the truth and to allow the legal process to make that determination according to the evidence.

However, I’m not so sure that her experience has given her any confidence that the legal process is capable of doing that with justice, and that is perhaps the most important thing about this book. It’s not just about the story of Asia McClain and her part in the story of one particular criminal case, it’s an expose of serious problems in the US justice system.

In our country there is supposed to be equal justice for all under the Constitution. Unfortunately, the system is so broken that many prosecutors only care about winning and not whether a defendant is truly guilty or innocent.

The court case at which Asian McClain Chapman was finally able to present her testimony led to the overturning of the conviction against Adnan Syed and the granting of a retrial. However, until that takes place he remains incarcerated in the same way a suspect denied bail would remain behind bars.

Not unexpectedly there has been appeal against that decision, so the legal processes grind on as slowly as ever.

It’s been two years since Serial subject Adnan Syed was granted a new trial, but his case will remain in limbo – and he’ll remain in prison – for another year.

This week, Maryland’s highest court agreed to hear the State’s appeal, which seeks to reinstate Syed’s conviction in 2000 for the murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

 
Full story here: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/adnan-syed-case-stalled-for-at-least-another-year-699265/

Adnan’s Story: addendum

This is a short interview with Rabia Chaudry about the continuing case of Adnan Syed, the subject of her book Adnan’s Story.

I’ve used the category “true crime” to describe the content of this post, however I believe the crime element relates to the way Syed was convicted of murder. I don’t see any truth in the claim that Syed was guilty of the crime for which he’s been imprisoned for almost 20 years.

The story of Syed’s conviction is told in great detail in the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts. Details of those podcasts can be found here:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/true-crime-false-conviction/

Also see:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/the-science-of-serial/

https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/06/adnans-story-rabia-chaudry/

Catching a Serial Killer

On 19th March 2011, Sian O’Callaghan was reported as missing. She failed to return home to her boyfriend after a night out with friends. Early indications suggested she had been abducted, and Detective Superintended Stephen Fulcher was assigned the role of Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in the case.

Fulcher worked on the assumption that Sian was a kidnap victim and therefore locating her quickly was essential. The hope that she was still alive motivated his approach to the investigation, prioritising her safe return.

Ultimately that motivation would cost him his job.

Taking advantage of a timely display of apparent contrition, Fulcher, still hoping to find the victim alive, questioned his prime suspect outside of expected police procedure. That interaction led to the suspect, taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, taking Fulcher to the place where he’d disposed of Sian’s body.

To Fulcher’s surprise, Halliwell then asked him if he wanted “another one”, after which he took the police to the site where he’d buried Becky Godden, a previously unknown victim of an earlier murder.

Fulcher later started to suspect that there could be another six unknown victims of Halliwell”s violence, after Halliwell boasted to a fellow prison mate that police were investigating 8 murders he’d committed.

Five years later Fulcher’s successor located Halliwell’s “trophy store”, where he’d hidden articles taken from Sian and others, who were also likely victims, whose identity remains unknown. However, despite the suspicion that there were six others , the number of discoveries indicated there could be up to sixty of them.

Like the earlier book about the 1960s Cannock Chase murders, Catching A Serial Killer gives insight into the workings within an active police murder investigation, however almost 50 years later technology has clearly made a difference.

Computerised systems have simplified the collation and retrieval of possibly relevant material.

CCTV in public places as well as vehicle recognition cameras have made it possible to locate victims right up to the time of the crime committed against them, as well as locating and tracking vehicles potentially used by the perpetrator.

And DNA profiling has helped in identifying victims as well as confirming a perpetrator’s contact with a victim.

While Fulcher’s unorthodox approach brought closure to the Sian O’Callaghan case, and discovered a previously unknown killing, it also brought an end to his police career.

This situation seems to offer the flip side to the American case examined in Adnan’s Story, and highlights the difficulties that can be faced in police investigations. In the American case it seems that a blind eye was turned to questionable police procedures that seem* to have led to the conviction and incarceration of an innocent man; all done in the name of expediency, to get a conviction of someone, anyone, to have the case closed “successfully”.

While that case shows good reason why  approved procedures and limits are necessary in the way police approach their work as a protection to the innocent (even though they seemingly had little effect in the Syed case), what Fulcher did, and what happened to him as a result shows how those procedures and limits can hamper the successful investigation of critical incidents where a life may be at risk.

The need to protect the innocent from the actions of potentially dodgy cops becomes a hindrance to the necessary work of the good cop. Maintaining justice will always be a difficult process  as long as there are “good guys” motivated by less than honourable ambitions. The reality of that kind of person within the law enforcement and legal systems makes it harder to obtain the desired, just outcome that society would expect.

And when “the law” becomes more about winning or losing than about  truth and justice…

 

I had been unable to see how Halliwell’s case could possibly be defended. I did now: by painting me as the bad guy. From the hero of the piece, having found the body of an abducted girl and a second victim, it seemed I would become the villain…

…It had never occurred to me that the actual facts of the case would – apparently – not be taken into account. The issue of Halliwell’s guilt or innocence wasn’t in question and I’d always thought his case was undefendable. I had never anticipated that his legal team wouldn’t even try to defend it – that they’d simply try to have it thrown out of court. But that was what was happening.

[Stephen Fulcher from Catching a Serial Killer]

 

_______________________

* In my opinion, the investigations into the case covered in many hours of recordings on the Undisclosed website show that there was no convincing evidence that Adnan Syed was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

See previous post and follow links here:

https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/true-crime-false-conviction/

 

Adnan’s Story, Rabia Chaudry

adnanIn 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.

(2)

The murder of Hae Min Lee was investigated by Detectives William Ritz and Gregory MacGillivary. To date, three four* 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)

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristina_Gutierrez#Representation_of_Adnan_Syed

(4) http://www.splitthemoon.com/perjury-witness-tampering-obstruction-of-justice-and-its-only-tuesday/

 

True Crime, False Conviction

adnan

I have recently discovered, and have begun listening to, the podcasts at the sites linked below.

https://serialpodcast.org/

http://undisclosed-podcast.com/episodes/season-1/

Apparently Serial was something of a podcast phenomena a few years ago (see red label on the book cover), but I only came across it about two months ago.

Serial came about when Rabia Chaudry suggested that journalist Sarah Koenig look into a murder case.

Chaudry was a family friend of Adnan Syed, a man convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend when he was 17 years old and  a student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. Hae Min Lee went missing after school on 13 January 1999. Her body was discovered on February 9th. Syed was arrested and charged with her murder at the end of the month.

In Serial Sarah Koenig takes a look at the case in a very listenable presentation. Later Chaudry created her own podcast Undisclosed, in which she views the case in even greater depth, aided by two associates who had no personal link to Syed or his family. All three presenters in Undisclosed have a legal background.

Chaudry has also written,  Adnan’s Story: The Truth, to present the story in book form.

The two podcasts and the book give very convincing arguments that justice has not been done in this case, that Syed was convicted of a crime he did not commit, based on false testimony, no valid evidence and very shoddy police work (at best inept, at worst ???).

The murder of Hae Min Lee was investigated by Detectives William Ritz and Gregory MacGillivary. To date, three four* 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)

Syed also was not helped by his defence attorney’s performance. At the time she was suffering health issues that led to her disbarment (by consent) a year after Syed’s conviction.

While it’s clear that podcasts and books can limit the evidence they share to sway the conclusions drawn in a particular direction, three of those involved in the above mentioned projects had no reason to favour any particular findings.

The podcasts require an ongoing, lengthy commitment of listening time. I downloaded them all to a USB stick and have been listening to them while driving to and from work each day. Despite the sometimes technical nature of some of the legal arguments, I’ve found each episode easy to follow and understand.

There is so much about this case, in which Syed was found guilty and has so far served about 18 years in jail, that had me shaking my head in disbelief. But one particular episode of Undisclosed – episode 9 – “Charm City” – convinced me that something was clearly wrong. (See my earlier comment about “shoddy police work).

The same police department, including some of the very same investigating detectives, were involved with other cases where convictions were eventually overturned due to legal “discrepancies”.

It seems to me that their primary goal was to obtain a conviction (any conviction) and wrap a case up, and NOT necessarily to see justice served by having the actual perpetrator convicted and jailed.

At times they withheld vital evidence that weakened their case. In one example (not the Syed case) an eye witness account was used to identify a murderer. However they declined to share the fact that the witness had been diagnosed as legally blind. In another case an eyewitness testified to seeing a crime from their bathroom window, but the fact that the window didn’t overlook the crime scene was covered up.

Undisclosed also gives evidence that witnesses (including the main witness in the Syed case) were coached by police and were helped to get their stories “straight” prior to having their testimony recorded for the official records. At times in the recorded interview the witness can be heard stumbling over the “facts” he was presenting, followed by an apology to his interviewers before “correcting” his testimony. Preceding the apology, distinct tapping can be heard as if his attention was being drawn to notes on the table.

Only a few days ago, (March 30) The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in Syed’s favour and granted him a new trial, however it seems he will remain in custody until (and during) that trial.