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'The Case Against Adnan Syed' on HBO Revisits the 'Serial' Podcast Crime
March 10, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

A new quasi-sequel to Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast about a 1999 murder in Baltimore, will inevitably make less of a cultural splash than the original. But it provides equally valuable context to a case fraught with loose ends.  

The Case Against Adnan Syed, a TV documentary that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, spends four hours retracing and updating the status of the case, in which Baltimore high school student Syed was convicted of strangling classmate Hae Min Lee.

While The Case Against Adnan Syed runs shorter than Sarah Koenig’s groundbreaking Serial podcast, it goes deeper into different aspects of the case.

Most notably it provides a fuller portrait of Lee, including extensive focus on journals in which she ruminated on the family and school dramas of her life.

Some of those musings seem to be classic teenage girl stuff, which is not intended as a diminutive. When she started seeing an older boy, Don Clinedinst, she wrote his name hundreds of times, interwoven with little hearts.

Other entries read more like reflections on her life or worry that she had, for instance, lied to her family.

None provide any concrete clues about who might have killed her on Jan. 13, 1999, and buried her in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park.

Syed, who has maintained his innocence all along, was convicted largely on the testimony of fellow student Jay Wild, who said Syed confessed to the killing and asked Wild to help him bury the body.

The Case Against Adnan Syed notes that Wild’s story changed multiple times during various interrogations. This was countered somewhat during Syed’s original 2000 trial by phone records that seemed to indicate a corroborating link.

Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and Syed family friend, worked for years to challenge the conviction. She helped convince Koenig to launch Serial and provided much of the impetus for the legal appeal that resulted in Syed’s conviction being overturned in 2016. 

The judge who overturned the conviction primarily cited questions about the phone records, saying they denied Syed a fair trial.

That ruling is now under appeal. If the appeal is denied, Syed could be retried. Absent some dramatic new development, no outcome seems likely to satisfy everyone, and Case Against Adnan Syed director Amy Berg echoes Koenig’s implication: that despite what we often see on police and legal television dramas, justice can be ragged, imperfect and unsatisfying.

Berg also follows the lead of Serial in not framing her narration as advocacy for Syed’s innocence. She talks with Lee’s family, who remain convinced Syed killed Han because she was breaking up with him to start dating Clinedinst.

Somewhat creepier is Berg’s visit with Clinedinst, who now lives in a remote cabin. His relationship with Lee raised questions – he was 22, and she was 18 – as did his alibi. He tells Berg in a brief conversation that he doesn’t really care whether anyone believes him, because he has more important things to think about.

Like Serial, The Case Against Adnan Syed inevitably feels like a snapshot of something that’s still in motion. Depending on what happens going forward, there could be a third Adnan Syed production.

Still, this is more than just an update. Berg also notes the way Serial got thousands of listeners actively involved, looking for information on the case, and we see Syed’s lawyer crediting those civilians with helping Syed win his appeal.

The Case Against Adnan Syed doesn’t break genre ground. What it does do is what good documentaries have always done: It reminds us that all the other dramas and tragedies, however genuine and moving, cannot eclipse that of Hae Min Lee.

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David's terrific piece does two important things, 1) I think it supports Keonig's initial motivation for her 'Serial' podcast, which was to have as many people as possible look and listen to what is known about this case and try and decide how you'd vote as a juror and, 2) NEVER to lose sight that Hae Min Lee was killed and that THAT matters much more than what those of us still living can piece together about what was found out. I listened. I'm watching, as David suggests, you should too. Want answers? Life's too complex for that.
Mar 11, 2019   |  Reply
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