THE DEAL WITH JAY
HBO’s ‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’ Shows Us What ‘Serial’ Could Not
Recent interviews, new revelations, photos, and video footage—director Amy Berg’s new documentary goes where the popular podcast wasn’t able to.
There’s a considerable difference between “not guilty” and “innocent,” and that distinction is crucial to The Case Against Adnan Syed. A companion piece/sequel to Sarah Koenig’s immensely popular Serial, which helped jumpstart the current podcast and true-crime crazes, director Amy Berg’s four-part documentary (premiering Sunday, March 10 on HBO) is both a lucid primer on its notorious mystery, and a follow-up marked by intriguing new details that amplify uncertainty about its subject’s culpability.
There’s plenty of reasonable doubt to be found in this retelling of the story of Adnan Syed, who in 1999, as a 17-year-old senior at Baltimore County’s Woodland High School, was accused—and then, in 2000, convicted—of strangling to death his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Yet as with its predecessor, raising reasonable doubt isn’t exactly the same thing as providing exonerating proof.
Given that, at slightly more than four hours, it’s about half as long as Koenig’s 8.5-hour audio opus, The Case Against Adnan Syed will strike Serial fans as a CliffsNotes version of the tale. Nonetheless, Berg’s series—at least in the first three episodes afforded to press—compensates for that relative brevity with advantages of its own: recent interviews with many principal players; novel revelations about testimony that was crucial to the initial judicial outcome; and, of course, plentiful photos and video footage. Berg recognizes that visuals are what set her work apart from Koenig’s podcast, and she leans on them particularly heavily in the first episode, depicting passages from Hae’s diary via flowery animation. While the director overuses this device, it captures the love-struck headiness of the girl’s early feelings for Adnan, and is in tune with related images of diary pages on which Hae wrote Adnan’s name (as well as that of her subsequent, older beau Don) countless times.
Those interludes are the primary aesthetic flourish of The Case Against Adnan Syed, which otherwise hews to a mundane non-fiction template, full of talking heads, geographical maps and diagrams, and dramatic reenactments. It’s an uncomplicated tack designed to cut through a thicket of information. Though it often makes the proceedings feel a bit staid, it also gets the functional job done, delivering a handy recap of the increasingly messy events surrounding Hae’s demise: her swoony-worthy affair with Adnan (hidden from both of their strict, disapproving parents); her disappearance after school on the afternoon of January 13, 1999, and the discovery of her body on February 9; Adnan’s arrest; and the subsequent confession by classmate Jay Wild that Adnan told him he’d strangled Hae in a Best Buy parking lot, and then asked Jay to help bury the girl’s body in nearby Leakin Park.
As Serial listeners know, Jay’s testimony was crucial to the state’s conviction of Adnan; what little DNA material was recovered from the scene was never tested (bafflingly), and there was scant additional evidence—save for cell phone-location data, and some corroborating testimony about the supposed timeline of events—pointing in his direction. The Case Against Adnan Syed focuses on the dubiousness of Jay’s version of events, which have changed numerous times over the years. And in one potential bombshell moment, an ex-girlfriend of Jay’s, Nikisha Horton, gets him on the phone and has him admit that the cops pressured him into fingering Adnan in exchange for leniency regarding a marijuana-possession bust.
Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t have actual audio of Jay making such claims; we only get to hear Nikisha’s side of the call. That lack of definitive verification is emblematic of an inquiry that’s much better at raising troubling questions than forwarding actual answers. Through the sleuthing of private investigators and attorney Susan Simpson, and conversations with Adnan’s family and friends, including diligent advocate Rabia Chaudry, as well as many of Hae and Adnan’s peers—such as Jennifer Pusateri and Kristi Vinson, both of whom had instrumental interactions with Jay and Adnan on January 13—director Berg persuasively suggests that the case against Adnan was flimsy. Jay was a habitual liar and all-around sketchy individual (over the ensuing two decades, he’s had 20-plus run-ins with the law). Adnan’s supposed motive (that he was jealous and angry over Hae breaking things off to be with Don) had no apparent basis in fact. And in two new developments that helped Adnan successfully appeal for a second trial—which is still pending—Asia McClain came out as an alibi for Adnan, and the original cell phone records placing Adnan in Leakin Park were exposed as inaccurate and invalid.
Taken together, these various pieces of the puzzle indicate that Adnan was put away on the basis of little more than Jay’s untrustworthy testimony and some dubious techno-nonsense. Which is why it remains possible that, if he gets to re-argue his case in court, Adnan may yet be acquitted. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that Adnan is conclusively blameless. Similar to Serial, The Case Against Adnan spends most of its energy picking apart the state’s contentions, at the expense of articulating a cogent defense of Adnan himself. In audio snippets, Adnan says he doesn’t remember what he was doing on the afternoon of January 13—he figures he went to track practice, and then home, as usual—and, well, that’s about the long and the short of his story. He treated initial police questioning with a ho-hum attitude. He can’t remember the after-school chat with Asia McClain that now serves as his key alibi. And he continues to call Jay a liar, rather than countering his accuser’s account with a coherent one of his own.
In Making a Murderer’s second season, lawyer Kathleen Zellner explains that, legally, you don’t have to offer an alternative narrative of events (replete with a potential new suspect) in order to attain exoneration—but it’s nonetheless vital in making a convincing argument. The Case Against Adnan Syed not only doesn’t make a convincing argument for Syed’s innocence; it makes no argument at all. Instead, it just pokes holes in the state’s case. It certainly does that with aplomb, such that it makes one think Adnan should walk free. But without any sort of competing explanation for what actually took place, it falls far short of proving that he had absolutely nothing to do with Hae’s murder.
No matter how much exculpatory new information the series unearths, there continues to be doubt in every direction.