The Serial Case of Adnan Syed, Part 1
The State's Case
No one has accused Adnan Syed of being a serial killer. My title instead plays off the the famous podcast Serial that made his case famous. I’ll turn to Wikipedia for an introduction to the podcast.
Serial is an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, narrating a nonfiction story over multiple episodes. The series was co-created and is co-produced by Koenig and Julie Snyder and developed by This American Life; as of July 2020, it is owned by The New York Times. Season 1 investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County. […]
On February 9, 2015, Scott Pelley of CBS News reported Serial's season 1 episodes had been downloaded more than 68 million times. By February 2016, the episodes had been downloaded over 80 million times.
Season 1 investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. She was last seen at about 3 p.m. on January 13, 1999. Her corpse was discovered on February 9 in Leakin Park and identified two days later. The case was immediately treated as a homicide. On February 12, an anonymous source contacted authorities and suggested that Adnan Masud Syed, Lee's ex-boyfriend, might be a suspect. Syed was arrested on February 28 at 6 a.m. and charged with first-degree murder, which led to "some closure and some peace" for Lee's family.
In 2000, Syed was found guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. His first appeal, in 2003, was denied.
The Serial podcast ended in 2014, and it was followed in 2015 by another podcast, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed. I’m apparently one of the few people who listened to neither of those podcasts.
In 2016, an appellate court vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The appellate court ruled that the trial evidence and testimony related to the use of cell towers to locate Syed’s phone at specific locations was unreliable. Most damningly for the defense were two incoming calls to Syed’s phone that placed him at the huge and remote Leakin Park at precisely the time that the State’s star witness, Jay Wilds, claimed he had been helping Syed bury the body there.
The State of Maryland appealed the decision of the appellate court to a higher appellate court. Syed remained behind bars.
In 2016, Investigation Discovery did a one-hour episode, Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty?2016 also saw the publication of two books on the case: Confessions of a Serial Alibi and Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. I did not watch the television show nor did I read either book.
In 2018, the higher appellate court upheld the lower appellate court’s ruling. Syed was to receive a new trial, but he had to wait in prison. The State of Maryland appealed the decision of the higher appellate court to an even higher appellate court.
In 2019, the even higher appellate court overturned the overturning of the higher appellate court. Syed would not get a new trial. He would remain in prison for life, and 30 years thereafter.
In 2019, HBO turned out its four-part series, The Case Against Adnan Syed. In late 2020, in binge-watched the HBO series.
Also in 2019, the United States Supreme Court rejected Syed’s appeal to grant a new trial. The chance that Syed would ever again walk free went from negligible to less than negligible.
I’ll base my analysis of the case primarily on a summary of the evidence presented in the appellate decisions supplemented by what I learned from the HBO four-part series.
I present the appellate court’s below, after which this post will end abruptly. I’ll therefore ask in advance that you ponder how you would have voted, had you been a juror. In the next post, I’ll tell you some things that the jurors didn’t know, and ask you to re-ponder whether any of those things would have influenced your vote.
Prepare to pay attention. Everything below the line is from the appellate decision. Be aware that everything in brackets is in the appellate decision. Other than remove hyper-texted footnote indicators, I have not edited the appellate text.
At trial, the State's theory was one of a scorned lover. The State described Syed as resentful when Hae ended her and Syed's on-again, off-again relationship in November of 1998. According to the State, this resentfulness only grew after Syed discovered that at the beginning of January 1999, Hae had begun dating Donald Cliendinst ("Don"). To make matters worse, Hae's new relationship quickly became common knowledge among students and teachers at Woodlawn High School, where both Hae and Syed were enrolled as students in the Magnet program for gifted students.
The State theorized that sometime before the school day ended on January 13, 1999, Syed asked Hae for a ride so that he could pick up his car at the repair shop, knowing that she would say yes. During that ride, Syed, a regular operator of Hae's Nissan Sentra, drove them to the Best Buy parking lot situated off Security Boulevard in Baltimore County, a location frequented by them during their courtship. Central to the State's theory was that Syed murdered Hae between 2:15 p.m. and 2:35 p.m. in the Best Buy parking lot by strangling her and then placing her body in the trunk of her car. The State adduced evidence showing that later that night, Syed and Jay Wilds (the State's key witness) buried Hae's body in Leakin Park.
A summary of the evidence adduced at trial in a light most favorable to the State is set forth below.
1. The Day of the Murder
a. Morning of January 13, 1999
At 10:45 a.m. on January 13, 1999, Syed used his newly purchased cell phone to call Wilds's home phone. Syed asked Wilds if he had any plans that day, to which Wilds replied that he needed to go to the mall to purchase a birthday present for his girlfriend. Syed stated that he would give Wilds "a lift." Later that morning, Syed arrived at Wilds's house in a tan four-door Honda Accord, and the two drove to Security Square Mall.
After shopping, Syed told Wilds that he had to get back to school, because his lunch period was ending. During the drive to school, Syed told Wilds "how [Hae] made him mad," and declared, "I'm going to kill that bitch. . . ." Wilds dropped Syed off at school, and Syed permitted Wilds to drive his car and keep Syed's cell phone. Syed said that he would give Wilds a call when he was ready to be picked up.
As Wilds was leaving school, he used Syed's phone to call his close friend, Jennifer Pusateri, to see if he could come over to her house. Syed's cell phone records indicate that a call was placed to Pusateri's phone at 12:07 p.m. Pusateri's brother answered the phone and told Wilds to come over, even though Pusateri was still at work. Pusateri was supposed to leave work around noon but was delayed that day. While at Pusateri's house, Wilds received a call from Syed, who stated that he was not ready to be picked up yet but that he needed to be picked up "at like 3:45 or something like that[.]"
When Pusateri got home from work, she observed that Wilds had a cell phone with him and had driven a tan four-door car to her house. Pusateri also noted that Wilds "wasn't acting like [he] normally acts[,]" and "[h]e wasn't as relaxed as he normally is[.]"
Aisha Pittman, Hae's best friend, said that she saw Hae "[r]ight at the end of the school day at 2:15 [p.m.] in Psychology class." When Pittman saw Hae, Hae was talking to Syed. Rebecca Walker, a student and friend of Hae and Syed, said that she too "saw [Hae for] a few seconds after class let out" at 2:15 p.m. that day. Walker said that she "saw [Hae] heading towards the door [that would have led to where her car was parked] but [ ] did not see [Hae] actually leave." Hae told Walker that "she had to be somewhere after school." But Hae did not say where she was going.
Inez Butler Hendricks, a teacher and athletic trainer at Woodlawn High School, saw Hae at the concession stand in the gym lobby at "about 2:15, 2:20 [p.m]." She recalled that Hae was wearing "[a] little short black skirt, light colored blouse, [ ] black heels[, and] . . . some [clear] nylon stockings [on her legs]" that day.
Young Lee, ("Young"), Hae's brother, stated that Hae was supposed to pick up their cousin from elementary school around 3:00 p.m. that day. Young discovered that Hae had not picked up the cousin when the elementary school called to notify him that the cousin needed to be picked up.
Meanwhile, Wilds received a phone call from Syed. According to Wilds, "[Syed] asked [him] to come and get him from Best Buy." Syed's cell phone records indicate an incoming call was received at 2:36 p.m.
Upon receiving the call from Syed, Wilds stated that he went straight to Best Buy where he saw Syed standing next to a pay phone wearing a pair of red gloves. Syed instructed Wilds to drive to the side of the building and park the car next to a gray Nissan Sentra, which was later identified as Hae's car. Wilds got out of the car and walked towards Syed. Syed asked Wilds if he was "ready for this." According to Wilds, Syed "opened the trunk and [Hae] was dead in the trunk."
Syed then closed the trunk and instructed Wilds to follow him as he drove Hae's car. In a self-described state of bewilderment, Wilds followed Syed to the Interstate 70 Park and Ride where Syed parked Hae's car. Syed got into the driver's seat of his car and drove away with Wilds as a passenger. Syed asked Wilds if he wanted to go buy some marijuana, to which Wilds agreed.
On their way to the house of Patrick Furlow, Wilds's friend and marijuana dealer, Wilds made a call to Pusateri to see if she knew if Furlow was home; Pusateri replied that she did not. Syed's cell phone records indicate that a call was made to Pusateri's phone at 3:21 p.m.
During their drive to Furlow's house, Syed also made a call to Nisha Tanna, a friend of his who lived in Silver Spring. Syed asked Wilds if he wanted to talk to Tanna and passed the cell phone to Wilds. Not feeling like talking, Wilds said, "hello, my name is Jay" and passed the phone back to Syed. According to Tanna, Syed asked her how she was doing and then "put his friend Jay [Wilds] on the line, and he basically asked the same question." Syed's cell phone records indicate that a call was made to Tanna's phone at 3:32 p.m.
Wilds called Furlow at 3:59 p.m. and learned that he was not home. At this point, Syed and Wilds changed course and drove to Forest Park to purchase marijuana. Wilds stated that he called Pusateri to see if she knew if Kristina Vinson, a mutual friend of Pusateri and Wilds, was home. Syed's cell phone records indicate that a call was made to Pusateri's phone at 4:12 p.m.
Syed told Wilds that he wanted to go to track practice at Woodlawn High School, because "he needed to be seen." During the ride to Woodlawn High School, Syed expressed that "it kind of hurt him but not really, and when someone treats him like that, they deserve to die." Syed asked: "How can you treat somebody like that, that you are supposed to love?" Wilds stated that Syed spoke about the murder and confessed that "he thought [Hae] was trying to say something to him like apologize or say she was sorry, and that she had kicked off the turn signal in the car, and he was worried about her scratching him on the face or something like that. . . ." When they arrived at Woodlawn High School, Syed told Wilds, "mother-fuckers think they are hard, I killed somebody with my bare hands."
Wilds then drove to Vinson's apartment to smoke marijuana and debate with himself about what to do. Wilds received a call from Syed on the cell phone half an hour later saying that he was at school ready to be picked up, and Wilds left Vinson's apartment to retrieve Syed.
Wilds stated that, after he picked up Syed, they both went to Vinson's apartment. Vinson stated that Wilds and Syed arrived at her apartment around 6:00 p.m. According to Vinson, it was memorable, because "they were acting real shady when they got there." While they were at Vinson's apartment, Wilds recalled that Syed received three phone calls. The first call was from Hae's parents asking if Syed knew where Hae was, to which he stated, "I haven't seen Hae, I don't know where she is, try her new boyfriend."
Wilds said that the second call occurred when "Hae's cousin or someone had called back[,] but it was the wrong number. They thought it was the new boyfriend's number[,] and it was his cellphone number or something like that." Young testified that "[he] looked around the house to look for [Hae's] friends' phone numbers and such," and discovered a phone number listed in Hae's diary as "443 253-9023.” Young called that phone number believing that it was the number of Hae's new boyfriend, Don, because the sheet of paper had "Don" written all over it. After talking for a while, Young realized that he was speaking to Syed, because he recognized Syed's voice. Young asked Syed "if he knew where [Hae] was, or where she could be." According to Young, Syed did not say whether he knew where Hae was.
The third phone call, according to Wilds, was "from a police officer who was asking about Hae." Officer Scott Adcock testified that he called Syed between 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and spoke to him for "no more than three to four minutes." Syed responded to the police officer stating, "I don't know where Hae is." Syed also "advised [him] that he did see her at school and that [Hae] was going to give him a ride home from school, but he got detained and felt that she probably got tired of waiting for him and left."
Vinson testified that after receiving the last phone call, Syed said, "they're going to come talk to me" and then "ran out of the apartment." According to Vinson, Wilds "jumped up and ran out of the apartment, too." Vinson looked out the window of her apartment and observed Syed and Wilds drive away. Syed's cell phone records indicate that three incoming calls were received by Syed's cell phone at 6:07 p.m., 6:09 p.m., and 6:24 p.m.
Wilds recounted that after leaving Vinson's apartment, Syed drove them to Wilds's house. There, Syed told Wilds that he needed his help getting rid of Hae's body, stating that "he knew what [Wilds] did," and "how [he] did it[.]" Fearing that this comment was a threat to report Wilds to the police for his drug dealing, Wilds agreed to help. Syed then "grabbed two shovels and put them in the back seat of his car. [Wilds] got in [Syed's] car with him." The two went back to the Interstate 70 Park and Ride where Syed got out of his car and got into Hae's parked car. Wilds followed Syed, and they drove around for forty-five minutes, ultimately arriving at Leakin Park.
Wilds stated that, because he was supposed to meet Pusateri at 7:00 p.m. that evening, he paged her to tell her that he was going to be late for their meeting. Syed's cell phone records indicate that a call was made to Pusateri's pager number at 7:00 p.m.
When Syed and Wilds arrived at Leakin Park, Syed parked Hae's car on a nearby hill, got into his car, and instructed Wilds to drive down the hill. They then went about 150 feet into the woods and used the shovels to begin digging.
Wilds stated that, "while we were digging, [Pusateri] had called back, and [Syed] just told her [Wilds] was busy now and hung up the phone." Pusateri testified that at 7:00 p.m. she received "a page from [Wilds,] and it was a voice message." She was confused by Wilds's page and "didn't understand the message [about] where [Wilds] wanted [her] to pick him up and what time. So [she] thought that it was necessary to call him." When she called the number on her caller I.D., "[s]omeone answered the phone and said [Wilds] will call me when he was ready for me to come and get him. He was busy." Syed's cell phone records indicate an incoming call was received at 7:09 p.m. Abraham Waranowitz, the State's expert in "cell phone network design and functioning[,]" testified that this call registered with cell site "L689B[,]" which was the strongest cell site for the location of Hae's body in Leakin Park.
After digging the grave, Wilds and Syed went back to Syed's car and put the shovels in the passenger side. Wilds then drove up the hill and parked behind Hae's car. According to Wilds, "[Syed] asked me for like five to ten minutes, he was like I don't think I'm going to be able to get her out by myself, I think I need your help." When Wilds responded that he was not going to help, Syed drove Hae's car down the hill.
Soon thereafter, Syed came back up the hill, parked Hae's car, got into his car, and told Wilds that they needed to bury Hae. Wilds returned with Syed to the woods where Hae was "laying kind of twisted face down." While they were burying the body, Syed received another phone call. Wilds did not know who the caller was, but noted that part of the conversation was not in English. Syed's cell phone records indicate an incoming call was received at 7:16 p.m. and registered with the same cell site, "L689B."
After Wilds and Syed finished burying Hae's body, Syed put the shovels in his car, and they drove up the hill to Hae's parked car. Syed drove away in Hae's car, with Wilds following behind driving Syed's car. Wilds recalled that the two
traveled towards the [C]ity on Route 40 and some of the back streets. We cut north and south, up and down roads. [Syed] pulled into like this alcove in the back of a whole lot of apartments. He parked [Hae's] car and came back to his vehicle. At that time, I told him just flat out to take me home. He started driving me home.
Wilds further testified that Syed stopped his car at Westview Mall where he threw Hae's wallet, prom picture, and other possessions into a dumpster. Wilds then told Syed to pull behind Value City in Westview Mall where he threw the two shovels into a dumpster.
Wilds stated that he paged Pusateri, and she testified that she received a page to pick Wilds up from Westview Mall around 8:00 p.m. Pusateri testified further that she picked Wilds up from the Value City in Westview Mall about ten to fifteen minutes after receiving his page. When Wilds got into her car, "the first thing he said was like put on your seat belt and let's go." When they left the parking lot, Wilds confessed that he had something to tell her that she could not tell anybody. Wilds then disclosed that Syed had strangled Hae in the Best Buy parking lot and that he had seen Hae's body in the trunk of a car.
2. Forensic Evidence
Although there were no eyewitnesses to the murder, there was forensic evidence that the State theorized linked Syed to the crimes. Margarita Korell, M.D., an assistant medical examiner at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore City, was accepted as "an expert in forensic pathology" at trial. Dr. Korell testified that on February 10, 1999, she performed an autopsy on Hae. Dr. Korell opined that "the cause of death was strangulation" and that the manner of death was "[h]omicide." Dr. Korell noted that the hyoid bone in Hae's neck was broken, and the strap muscles of the neck showed hemorrhaging, which indicated that pressure had been applied to the skin on the neck. Dr. Korell stated that in her experience, "if [ ] pressure [is applied] on the neck for ten seconds or so," that could lead to unconsciousness and death within "a couple of minutes."
Romano Thomas, a crime lab technician with the Baltimore City Police Department Mobile Crime Lab Unit, testified that on February 28, 1999, he supervised the inspection of Hae's vehicle. Thomas stated that one of the items recovered from the car was a map of the Leakin Park area that was torn out of a map book. The torn out piece was found in the rear seat area of the vehicle.
Sharon Talmadge, an employee at the Baltimore City Police Department Latent Print Unit, testified that her duties were to "evaluate partial latent prints to determine if they [were] suitable for comparison." Talmadge would "then compare suitable partial latent prints to the prints of victims, suspects[,] or defendants. [She would also] process physical evidence to determine if there [were] any partial latent prints on that particular piece of evidence." Talmadge said that she was asked to determine if there were any partial latent prints on the map and map book that were recovered from Hae's vehicle. Talmadge made a comparison to Syed and Wilds, and testified that "[a] partial latent print developed on the back cover of the map [book] . . . was identified as an impression of the left palm of  Syed."
3. Verdict and Appeal
After six weeks of trial, the jury spent only about three hours deliberating before finding Syed guilty on February 25, 2000, of the charges of first degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. Syed was sentenced on June 6, 2000, to a total term of life imprisonment plus thirty years.