The Case Against Adnan Syed

Where to Watch

Watch the four-part 2019 documentary on HBO.
Try NowTV in the UK or SBS OnDemand in Australia.

Perspective from the Filmmakers

In March 2019, HBO aired a four-part documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Written and directed by Amy Berg of Disarming Films, an award-winning filmmaker, produced in part by Jemima Goldsmith Khan, and based on Rabia Chaudry’s book Adnan’s Story, the documentary examines developments in the case since the Serial podcast

According to the HBO website:

In production since 2015, The Case Against Adnan Syed reviews the events leading up to Hae Min Lee’s disappearance, from high school romance, forbidden love and cultural conflict, to the aftermath of her disappearance, the original police investigation and the present day, as Syed awaits the outcome of a lengthy appeals process.

Director Amy Berg brings a fresh eye to the case and offers interviews with key players, many of whom were not featured in the original podcast. Bringing the story to life visually, she revisits the crime and follows unfolding developments from 2014 to today. The series presents new information that questions the state’s case, and draws on exclusive access to essential characters, including new audio recordings of Syed from prison, the defense team, the Syed family, friends and teachers of Hae Min Lee, private investigators and members of Baltimore City law enforcement, examining how Syed’s trial and subsequent conviction in 2000 raised as many questions as they answered.

One controversial choice was to include animated sections of Hae Min Lee’s diary with audio narration.

Adnan Syed is heard, but not seen, on screen. The filmmakers conducted new interviews with him by phone.

Perspective from your Wiki Editors

Some editorializing here: The documentary is a must-watch if you only listened to the Serial podcast. You’ll catch up on many of the developments in the case since 2014. It’s also really interesting to see video of the trial and some of the witnesses, rather than simply hearing them.

If you are a fan of The Undisclosed Podcast, or if you read Adnan’s Story, you’ll be familiar with arguments about the cops using cell phone data to shape Jay’s story, the lividity in Hae’s body not matching the State’s theory of the crime or Jay’s testimony, incoming cell phone records not being reliable for location, and Cristina Gutierrez’s ineffective assistance of counsel due to her failure to contact alibi witness Asia McClain. These arguments are all examined here, but not with as much depth and nuance as you’ll find in the longer podcast format (or through documents on this wiki!).

New Information in the Documentary

For the diehards, here are the new findings that have never appeared in an earlier podcast/book/court filing.

Don Clinedinst Alibi

The filmmakers hired Quest Research & Investigations. Investigators Tyler Maroney and Luke Brindle-Khym. The investigators interviewed Don Clinedinst, who spoke publicly for the first time since the last episode of Serial. He said:

There’s not a day go by that I do not think about her and what happened. I was very much in love with her. But, to be honest with you, I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind. I’ve been disabled since I was 23 and haven’t been able to work. I’m 38 now, I don’t expect to live to see 50 . . .  My next 12 years basically is making sure that my wife and kids are taken care of. Not worrying about whether anybody believes my alibi. Most people don’t have the resources you do to track me down.

[Episode 1]

The investigators also interviewed Thomas Precht, a 32-year employee of LensCrafters. He said the only reason Don would cover for Charles Kirby (another LensCrafters employee at the Hunt Valley store) would be if Charles called in sick. However, Charles’s time card showed he worked the day of Hae’s murder. Precht said: “There’s no reason I can imagine that there’s two of them there on a Wednesday. It just doesn’t make any sense.” The investigators ask if it’s possible to create a phantom shift in the timekeeping system without leaving a trace. Precht said: “If you were doing it in real time, you could do it. If you had his password, you could have been doing that.” [Episode 4]

The investigators talked to another LensCrafters employee, S.H.

I flash back to a conversation that myself, [Clinedinst], and another co-worker at LensCrafters had during a smoke break when he told us originally that she was missing. I remember, clear as day, his hands had scratch marks and bandages going around up towards his writs and the scratches were down towards his knuckles. He just said that it was something from working on his car . . . or something.

The investigators said their interest was piqued, but they had no direct evidence tying Don to the crime, and they were unable to corroborate S.H.’s account. [Episode 4]

Neighbor from the 300 Edgewood Lot

Many people find Jay’s story compelling because he knew where Hae’s car was found, and allegedly led police to the 300 Edgewood Street lot. The private investigators interviewed Irene, a neighbor at the 300 Edgewood lot where Hae’s car was found. Irene lived there 43 years. She said the car would not have sat in the lot unnoticed for six weeks without a neighbor calling to tow it, casting doubt on Jay’s story that the car had been parked there since the murder. [Episode 2]

Jay’s Former Girlfriend Talks to Jay

Nikisha Horton, Jay’s former girlfriend and the mother of his child, called Jay on the phone. Jay’s voice could not be aired because the filmmakers did not have permission to record him. [Episode 3]

He was talking about it though. I was shocked that he was even like talking to me so calmly. . . . At first he told me that he was there, and that, you know, everything that he had stated was true. And he told me the true thing was that he was serious. . . . And then he broken down to me, and was like he basically ratted out the guy to get himself out of jail with the police. . . . He said he got caught with a whole bunch of weed, and um it was so much they tried to pin it on him, and so basically he ratted the man and gave them a bigger story to get him locked up. And he basically gave them what they wanted to know so he could get off. He was saying it so fast, in slang, but I kind of feel sad for him, knowing them, but I know it’s probably eating him up, just from the conversation. We haven’t talked in years, and he was just so open to just let it out to me, so that says a whole lot.

Not Her Real Name Cathy Remembered the Wrong Day

Kristi Vinson (known in Serial as Not Her Real Name Cathy) recounted her story of Adnan’s and Jay’s visit to her house on the evening of January 13, 1999. She again asserted that Adnan acted strangely and received a troubling phone call. [Episode 3]

[After listening to Jay’s police interview] “He definitely did not leave and go get Adnan and come back. He definitely came in with Adnan. It doesn’t surprise me that Jay lied about that stuff, because Jay lies about everything, but I can’t figure out why, like what the, what the purpose is to lie about it.”

She also said, “I wished [the police] would have taped me from the beginning. . . I think you would have heard a lot more indecisiveness on my part. ‘I’m not sure, I don’t know.’ You know, more like that. I kind of sound like I have all the answers in that copy.”

The filmmakers, with her consent, obtained her school records from the University of Baltimore College Park. The records showed that Kristi was enrolled in a Winter Term class on Wednesday nights in January 1999 from 6:00pm to 9:10pm. She received a ‘B’ grade. Winter Term classes at UMBC include a full semester of content in a compressed timeline, and attendance at all sessions was typically mandatory to pass the class. Hae’s murder occurred on Wednesday, January 13, 1999. When shown her transcripts, Kristi said:

I don’t remember. I don’t remember whether I just blew the class off. So I got a ‘B’? These were only three sessions? Oh then I wouldn’t have blown it off. I couldn’t have, I wouldn’t have passed. I wouldn’t have been able to skip a winter class. So it definitely couldn’t have happened on the 13th, because I wouldn’t have been home watching Judge Judy on the 13th, if I had class. That concerns me, because I believe Adnan did it. I believe that those events connect — him loaning the car to Jay happens on the same date as them coming to my house. That was the same date as them — as Adnan killing Hae, as the same date as them going to Leakin Park. You know what I mean, I believed all that happened on the same day. But if we’re . . . [Interviewer: If one thing is off, how much does everything slide off?] Right, right. [Kristi puts her head in her hands.] I wish that I had a really clear recollection of the 13th and what happened. [Additional Interviewer questions omitted]

When shown Kristi’s class schedule, Jenn Pusateri said: “I don’t know. I-I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m telling you that in my mind, in my memory, that’s what happened.”

Jay Wilds Tells Another Story to the Filmmakers

The filmmakers interviewed Jay Wilds by phone in January 2019. They did not have his permission to record, so we do not hear his voice. Instead, his words were shown on a screencap: [Episode 4]

Jay maintained to the filmmakers that on the day of the murder, he borrowed Adnan’s car to buy his girlfriend a birthday present. In the phone conversation, he contradicted past statements by suggesting he tried to return Adnan’s car at school, but couldn’t find him and left. Jay told the filmmakers that Adnan showed up at his house and that’s where he saw Hae’s body, not Best Buy as he had previously stated. He said that the idea of Best Buy came from the police. Jay told the filmmakers that Adnan asked him to procure 10 pounds of marijuana. Jay claims that once he acquired the marijuana, Adnan threatened to turn him in if he didn’t help bury Hae’s body. Jay said that he and Adnan left Hae’s car in a grassy lot on January 13th, where it remained until Jay took the police there on February 28th.

Grass in the Wheel Treads of Hae’s Car

The private investigators interviewed Erik Ervin, Ph.D., a turf physiologist from the University of Delaware. He dug up grass from the 300 Edgewood lot and attempted to replicate the January/February 1999 conditions under Hae’s car to determine whether the grass could remain green. His experiments were inconclusive. However, he noted the green blades of grass in the treads of the wheels of Hae’s car. “With the rainfall over those 46 days, and the freezing and thawing, I’m very surprised that there’s still that much detritus left on those tires, because if you get large rainstorms, it would slowly wash this away. The detritus looks fresh, the path of where the tires picked up the detritus is still fresh. This could have been parked there the day before. It could have been parked there a week ago.” [Episodes 2 & 4]

Another Expert on Lividity

The private investigators spoke Jan Gorniak, D.O., a forensic pathologist and the Chief Medical Examiner of Fulton County, Georgia. She calls herself a “death detective.” She said:

So I did look at some scene photographs, autopsy photographs, the autopsy report . . . The hyoid bone was broken, which is the U-shaped bone that sits in your neck, and that’s one of the things we look at in an autopsy to determine the cause of death, which is strangulation. So I believe that the cause is strangulation and the manner was homicide. . . . I’m just picturing a sedan, and someone fighting for their life, literally. So what’s there? You have the dash, you have the window, you might see bruises or contusions on the arm. You might see broken fingernails, which, there were no broken fingernails. . . . So in the autopsy report, they talk about right temporalis muscle hemorrhage, but there is no description of hemorrhage in the [unclear] tissue. If there is supposedly enough force to have hemorrhage in that muscle, there should have been enough force to have hemorrhage underneath the scalp, so I don’t think that’s real. I think it might be post-mortem changes.

She continues to discuss lividity: “Sometimes you can see lividity . . . . Lividity is the settling of the blood after you die, and so depending on the position, it’s going to go towards the dependent areas, so if you were on your back, it’s going to shift towards your back, it’s where it’s going to settle . . . . But if there’s anything that’s compressing it, that’s going to be a blanched area. So you can see this, like, double-diamond-shaped mark on her shoulder. This is lividity around it. Something had to be pushed against her, and her being face down. [Investigator: It would take 8-12 hours for those patterns to become fixed.] Correct. [Investigator: The lividity had to be fixed in this range some time between 10:30PM and 2:30AM.] Correct. [Investigator: In order for it to leave any sort of markings like that.] Correct. . . . I believe that she had to be in a place between 8 to 12 hours in order for that mark to be stayed there.” The investigators conclude that the State’s theory and Jay’s story that the burial happened at 7:30PM cannot be true.

The investigators connect the double-diamond shaped mark to a concrete shoe. Alonzo Sellers (Mr. S) worked as a concrete finisher for years. The investigators also note that Sellers lives a five-minute walk from Woodlawn High School. [Episode 4]

New DNA Testing

The filmmakers reveal that Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown agreed with the Brian Frosh, the Maryland Attorney General, to test DNA evidence still in the State’s possession. The tests showed that neither Adnan nor Jay matched any of the tested DNA samples on Hae’s body or the crime scene. An unknown female profile was found on two wires found near Hae’s body in Leakin Park. Unknown fingerprints from the mirror of Hae’s car were also ran through CODIS, but they did not match anyone who has ever been booked or arrested in Maryland, or known law enforcement agents who worked on the case. [Episode 4]

Plea Bargain Offered and Refused

In the final episode, Adnan is offered a plea bargain which would have required him to plead guilty and serve four more years. Adnan turned the plea down in November 2018. Adnan also learned his mother is ill with leukemia. The final screencap reports that the Maryland Court of Appeals has denied Adnan a new trial. [Episode 4]

Articles About The Case Against Adnan Syed

How We Reinvestigated the ‘Serial’ Murder for HBO [paywall] Taylor Maroney and Luke Brindle-Khym, Wall Street Journal Magazine, 3/11/2019. This article by the two private investigators hired by Disarming Films is behind a paywall. Here’s the highlights:

    • Barely a month into our re-investigation, we came across a promising lead. A helicopter pilot who worked with the Baltimore County Police Department’s aviation unit in 1999 told us that during a flyover, someone on his team had spotted Lee’s car when the case was still classified as a missing person’s investigation. If true, we would have uncovered proof that Syed did not, as prosecutors argued, ditch Lee’s Nissan Sentra in a grassy West Baltimore parking lot after allegedly burying her corpse in the early evening of January 13, 1999. Berg was thrilled, but her enthusiasm, and ours, quickly waned. The pilot later admitted he could not remember the case and explained that corroborating any such memories would be difficult; in 2003, Hurricane Isabel destroyed the helicopter unit’s records. He recommended we check the homicide detectives’ file, or “murder book,” which would include statements by the tactical flight officers who conducted the actual search. We did; there were none. After interviewing five more former pilots and collecting inconclusive satellite imagery, we moved on.” See related BPD memo
    • “One document cited by adherents of this view was a computer printout ostensibly showing when Lee’s car had been spotted by law enforcement. Tantalizingly, one of these sightings had occurred in Harford County northeast of Baltimore, near the home of Lee’s boyfriend when she died, Don Clinedinst. By interviewing former law enforcement officers who used the National Crime Information Center database and pulling police dispatch logs from Harford County, however, we determined that the printout did not show where the car had been spotted. Instead, it was a search log showing when and where the police officers working on Lee’s missing-persons case had checked the NCIC database to see if her car had turned up somewhere else.”
    • “But Clinedinst had an alibi for that day: He was working at a LensCrafters store in Hunt Valley, another Baltimore suburb, where his mother just happened to be the manager. The internet was ablaze with the idea that Clinedinst’s mother had doctored her son’s Hunt Valley timecard, creating what some saw as a phantom shift that put Clinedinst far from the scene of the crime. After interviewing more than 15 current and former employees of LensCrafters, employees of Luxottica Group, LensCrafters’ parent, and even the developer who built the timekeeping software, we debunked the timecard theory. It was, we concluded, impossible to adjust the computerized timecard retroactively without leaving a trace. Beyond that, other evidence we developed undermined the state’s official timeline of the crime, making Clinedinst’s alibi beside the point.” [See description of Episode 4, where the investigators reveal the timecard could have been altered in real time]
    • “Another theory championed on the internet was that Wilds had made contact with police earlier than the official record shows, the implication being that Wilds—who provided the most damaging testimony against Syed at trial—had either been coerced into giving false testimony or was lying to begin with. The seed of this idea lay in a memo from a private detective who had worked alongside Syed’s original defense lawyer showing that about a week before Jay’s first recorded police interview, he had skipped a shift at the pornography store where he was employed to meet with homicide detectives. The source of this lead was the store’s manager, a woman referred to in the private eye’s notes as Sis. After months of interviewing the store’s former employees and digging through boxes of police records and zoning files, our team tracked down Sis and interviewed her at home. She did not remember Jay by name or by description. She also did not recall having a conversation with a private detective and emphasized that this is the kind of conversation she would remember—one about a murder investigation.”

Turfgrass and the Case against Adnan Syed, Erik H. Ervin, GCM Online, 4/4/2019
Meet the UD professor featured in HBO’s ‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’, Holly Quinn, Delaware, 4/5/2019
Director Amy Berg on Why the Adnan Syed Case Still Matters, Austin Considine, The New York Times, 3/29/2019
Former Erie resident is ‘death detective’ in HBO documentary, Kevin Flowers, Go Erie, 4/19/2019