The Science of Serial


Caution, some of the details spoken about in the following video can be disturbing.

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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)

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(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.