Revisiting Serial: The 5 big reasons why Adnan Syed most likely did not kill Hae Min Lee

Like many of those who enjoy true crime podcasts, I got hooked after listening to the groundbreaking first season of Serial, which investigated the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee, who was strangled and buried in Leakin Park on January 13, and the problematic conviction of he ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

Hae Min Lee was murdered in 1999

Released in 2014, the show hooked tens of millions of people as it delved deep into the baffling case, examining the evidence used to convict Syed and coming up with fresh leads, a possible alibi, new theories, controversies and inconsistencies.

Serial set the scene for an explosion of investigative true crime podcasts and became the template against which they would all be judged.

Serial also threw a huge spotlight on Syed’s conviction and the many doubts about the dubious testimony of his so-called friend and local drug dealer Jay Wilds which ultimately sent Syed to jail for life despite no hard evidence linking Syed to Lee’s murder. The podcast inspired a four-part HBO documentary that also argued for his innocence (along with numerous follow-up podcasts and blogs), paving the way for efforts by Syed’s legal team to secure a re-trial.

While that effort ultimately failed – in March 2019 the Maryland Court of Appeal quashed a decision by the state’s lower courts to grant him a new trial and in November 2019 the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case – doubts about his conviction have remained and the debate has raged for years online and on social media. Did Adnan Syed do it?

While it came out a few years ago,popular true crime podcast called Crime Junkie (which I have just discovered via a good friend) aired a special episode in April 2018, which in my opinion tips the scales firmly in favour of Adnan Syed’s innocence and highlights an appalling miscarriage of justice.

Called “What Serial Didn’t Tell You”, Crime Junkie host Ashley Flowers, with the help of her co-host Brit Prawat, pulls together all the extensive information published since Serial season one aired, drawn mainly from two other podcasts, Undisclosed and Truth and Justice as well as three blogs written by Rabia Chaudry (the lady who brought Adnan’s case to Serial host Sarah Koenig), lawyer Sarah Simpson and law professor Colin Miller, all three of whom are hosts of Undisclosed. She also read Chaudry’s best selling book Adnan’s Story.

“I tried to make that 30 minute thing with the top need to know facts [so that people can] have an informed discussion about Adnan’s case,” says Flowers at the start of the podcast.

Flowers then goes on to launch a concise and highly convincing argument for Syed’s innocence, or at the very least, the right to a new trial.

Without listening to all the podcasts, or reading the blogs and books Flowers researched to prepare the episode (I assume its accurate, Crime Junkie is a very popular and scrutinised podcast) I’ve summarized the main points she makes, plus added one of my own:

  1. The cellphone tower pings

Adnan Syed was convicted of murder largely because Jay Wild’s testimony of what happened and where on January 13, 1999. This timeline of events matched the locations of cell phone tower that pinged off Syed’s mobile phone every time it rang on that fateful day.

“Police created a map to show how the cell phone moved during the day based on its signal pinging of towers,” Flowers reminds listeners.

While there was a lot of controversy about this testimony – Wilds changed his story when the police and prosecutors realised they got the map wrong being just one example – it still dealt a body blow to Syed because two calls pinged off towers near Leakin Park at 7.09 and 7.16pm that prosecutors said proved Syed was there burying Lee’s body.

(You can read Jay Wild’s account of that day as told to The Intercept in December 2014.)

“They even got an expert to testify to this in court who said Adnan was where Jay said he was at the time they were burying Hae’s body,” says Flowers.

However, this expert did not see (most likely it was deliberately withheld) a fax cover sheet from telephone company AT&T which made the point that outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Incoming calls – the ones Syed received on January 13, 1999 – are not considered reliable information for determining a location.

“The expert witness did not see this, and would have changed his testimony” says Flowers. This was one of the man arguments Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown used to get a new trial.

2. The State of Hae Min Lee’s body

While this cell tower information is startling, it does not prove conclusively that Syed was not in Leakin Park at the time Wild’s said they were there burying Lee’s body, only that the data cannot be relied upon.

More important – and damning of the conviction of Syed – is the state of Hae Min Lee’s body when it was discovered four weeks after her murder on February 9.

According to Flowers (and confirmed by medical examiner who undertook the autopsy), Lee had “full-fixed lividity” on the front of her body including her face, chest, stomach and legs.

Lividity or Livor Mortis is the settling of blood after death in gravity-dependent portions of the body, including in the organs. Blood settles after death in parts of the body closest to the ground, causing purplish-red blue discolouration.

Lividity happens pretty slowly, and can take 8-10 hours to occur, explained Flowers.

This meant Lee’s body had remained face down in the same position for that period and therefore she could not have been placed in the trunk of a car, as Jay Wilds, the state’s key witness had claimed when he picked Syed up around 4pm from Best Buy on the day of the murder.

In addition, because Lee was found on her right side, but she had full, fixed lividity on the front of her body, she could not have been buried flat in a shallow grave at Leakin park at around 7.30pm. Lee was last seen alive at around 2.15- 3pm, so at a minimum her body would have had to lie face down until 10.30 or 11pm, most likely even later.

“Nothing adds up,” says Flowers.

3. Hae Min Lee’s car

Hae Min Lee’s car – a Nissan Sentra – is a crucial piece of evidence as Jay Wild’s says that her body was in the boot before Syed drove it to Leakin Park with Wild’s following behind in Syed’s Honda Accord.

Later, according to Wild’s testimony Syed parked it in a lot behind some houses. The car was recovered on February 28, the same day Syed was arrested and charged with her murder.

Flowers notes that there was green grass growing under the car, and even inside the wheel well, which suggests the car was moved from somewhere else and that someone told Jay where the car was.

This is confirmed in pictures of Lee’s car, which you can easily find online showing clearly the grass growing underneath and the patch of dead grass next to it, indicating what should have happened over time.

“It highlights the fact again that Jay new nothing about what happened to Hae – his account is all made up. Jay’s story unfolds as police find new evidence not the other way round,” say Flowers.

And the question remains: who moved Lee’s car?

Hae Min Lee’s Car: the green grass can be seen clearly under the car

4. There is no evidence linking Adnan Syed to the crime scene (my own ‘research’)

The entire case made against Adnan Syed was based on Jay Wild’s testimony. There is in fact no physical evidence linking Syed to the crime scene, not a shred.

Furthermore, DNA testing carried out in 2019 of 12 pieces of evidence found on or around Hae Min Lee’s body found none of the them produced a DNA profile that was a match for Syed.

“This included a rope/wire found five inches from the body that yielded a DNA profile that is a match for some unknown person; and two hairs recovered from Hae’s body that are not the hairs of either Hae or Adnan,” writes law professor Colin Miller on his blog Evidence Prof.

5. Adnan Syed was the only person police investigated – there are other suspects

Says Flowers” “The cops looked into no one else a tenth as hard as they looked into Adnan” whose criminal record was pulled on February 3, 1999, before the anonymous tip came in to look at Syed as the most likely suspect.

Nobody else’s criminal record was pulled.

This included her current boyfriend at the time, “Don”, other people close to her. and a guy (Roy  Sharonnie Davis) who had murdered another 18-year-old girl who attended Woodlawn High a year ago (Jada Denita Lambert, an 18-year-old Woodlawn woman whose body was found in May 1998) and was not in jail at the time (Davis was convicted in 2002).

However while Davis was surely worth investigating, the Crime Junkie hosts say its most likely Lee was killed by someone she knew.

“Someone paged Hae that day to meet her, and kill her, but that pager was never found.” Flowers says.

Flowers also question the alibi given by Don, who could not be reached until 1.30am on January 14, and who said he was working at a LensCrafters store.

I’d rather not going into all the anomalies in his alibi, but you could read about them on the Crime Junkie podcast. However, I will just mention one, both Don’s mom and his stepmom worked in manager roles at the company and provided his alibi on the day Lee was murdered.

‘If the police had done their job; if they would have looked into anyone else as hard as Adnan they would have found this out,” says Flowers.

According to evidence collected as part of the trial, Lee was due to meet up with Don on the day she died. She also worked at Lenscrafters, though not at the same store Don was working at that night.

Of course none of this is absolute conclusive proof Syed had no involvement in Lee’s murder – bear in mind Wilds gave about five days of detailed testimony at both trials so it beggars belief he made it all up.

However, it does highlight that if Syed had a decent lawyer he almost certainly would not and should not have been convicted based on the evidence and testimony presented at the trial. Furthermore, being a non-white American clearly did not help his cause.

If you’re interested in find out more, I’d encourage listening to the whole Crime Junkie podcast in full and then, if you’re keen, taking a deep dive into the case. There’s a ton of information out there.

(This link has all the court transcripts to the 1999 mistrial and 2000 trial)

If not – and no judgement here, life is too short – remember this point made by Flowers: “Adnan has facts on his side, the State of Maryland only had Jay.”

Adnan Syed, Arrest photo

Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.