The theme of exonerations and retrials has been a major focus of entertainment in the recent months and past year. Netflix catered to this heightened obsession with “Making a Murder” and HBO hopped on the bandwagon with their mega-hit, “The Night Of”. While this theme is not anything new, (statistics show that up to 149 people were exonerated in 2015 alone) an increased interest on the topic has been growing, especially since the podcast “Serial” was released in 2014.
“Serial”, narrated by Sarah Koenig, debuted in October 2014 and gained immediate attention. The podcast was number one on iTunes upon its release and by February 2016, the episodes have been downloaded over 80 million times. “Serial” for those unfamiliar, dealt with the re-investigation of the case of Adnan Syed, a high school student convicted of killing his then-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. One of the paramount reasons the podcast gained so much attention was heavily weighted on the fact that many were of the notion that Syed was. Koenig went to great lengths to interview many of Syed’s family members, friends, friends of the deceased (Lee), and others who had some ties to the parties of the case. Syed was found guilty and has been in prison for the past 17 years.
This past July, Syed’s conviction was overturned by Judge Martin P. Welch of Baltimore. Welch determined, as many “Serial” listeners had questioned themselves, that Syed’s previous attorney, the late Cristina Guttierez, had “failed to cross-examine the state’s cell expert in the 200 trial and therefore violated his right to effective counsel…[on these grounds] he granted the defense’s petition for a new trial.”
Guttierez may have been ineffective as an attorney in the case due to her decreasing health. Both Koenig and Syed note to her “muddled…cross examinations” and how difficult it was to “follow her main points while she rambled on and on.” This factor may have played a role in Guttierez’s failure to contact what could have been a major alibi witness, Asia McLean. McLean spoke to Koenig on one of the podcast’s episodes and stated that she had seen Syed in the high school library on the day of Lee’s murder.
Syed’s new attorney, Justin Brown, is confident that newly found evidence will help to prove Syed’s innocence. While a new trial, will, in Brown’s hopes, include testimony by McLean, it will also address inconsistencies of testimony provided by Jay Wilds, the state’s star witness in the original case. Wild’s timeline of events on the day Lee was murdered, which was the crux of the State’s argument, was deemed to be wildly inconsistent. At one point, Wild stated that he helped Syed bury Lee’s body around 7 pm, but then later claimed it happened after midnight. Additionally, he stated once that he actually helped Syed dig the hole in which Lee was found but then contradicted himself by saying he stayed in the car while Syed dug and “buried the body himself.”
The transparency of the inconsistencies in Syed’s original trial caused many “Serial” listeners to seriously question the validity of his conviction. There were clearly many issues addressed by Koenig that had people asking: was there enough evidence to rightfully convict Sayed of this horrendous crime in the first place? Clearly the relationship between Sayed and Lee, as boyfriend and girlfriend, gives people the impression that this was a crime of passion. “Serial” examined the relationship between the two, to which listeners were informed of some questionable facts. Highlighted was the alleged secrecy the couple had to face in order to hide their relationship from their parents. This was apparently due to cultural differences between the Syed and Lee. Hae’s diary, which was examined after her death, allowed the public to take a personal, in depth look into the relationship of these two young people. Hae’s feelings towards Syed seemed to vary: from supporting herself in her breakups with him, to feeling ecstatic when the two would get back together.
It is clear that there were inconsistencies in the testimonies given at Syed’s first trial. The question then arises did the State provide sufficient evidence to support his conviction? This will be determined in a new trial with new evidence.
Maryland Office of the Attorney General has commented on the re-opening of this case and stated that it is determined to defend Syed’s conviction of 2000: “The court ruled in the State’s favor on a number of issues, but there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts. The State’s responsibility remains to pursue justice, and to defend what it believes is a valid conviction.”