SO DID ADNAN DO IT?!
The Scoop on ‘Serial’: Making Sense of The Nisha Call, Asia's Letters, and Our Obsession
The red flags, disconcerting questions, and unresolved issues in the story of a mysterious murder of a Baltimore high school student.
Adnan. Jay. Hae. For those of us who have gotten hooked on NPR’s Serial, the most downloaded podcast around the world, these names are as familiar as our friends and coworkers—and if we’re being perfectly honest, we probably spend a hell of a lot more time thinking about them. Reporter Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 strangulation murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee has tapped into our obsession with cold cases and unsolved murders that’s driven the popularity of True Detective and the rebooting of Twin Peaks. But the simultaneously gripping and chilling hold of Serial is that its characters are real people. Hae is dead, and Adnan Syed has been in jail since he was 17 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Jay, the main witness for the state, is leading a relatively normal life, though that probably has all changed with Serial.
Adnan has an appeal hearing for post-conviction relief set for January. His lawyer, Justin Brown, has been pushing for what he calls Adnan’s “last best chance at freedom” for years. “It’s still alive by a thread,” is how Koenig morosely described the appeal in Episode 10.
While Adnan may eventually get out after Serial runs its course, it is pretty much impossible for Koenig to tie this story up neatly. Ink has already been spilled about the audience’s obsession with some sort of clear and satisfying resolution. Koenig can’t force that, and it seems selfish for us as listeners to want a happy ending, when there are, you know, real lives at stake. In fact, the most recent episode, “Rumors,” seems to be Koenig going out of her way to cast further doubts on our understanding of Adnan and, therefore, our attempt to understand who killed Hae.
Still, Koenig has led us on trail, poking holes in state’s case against Adnan while raising questions about the convicted murder’s own ardent plea at innocence. Here are the red flags, disconcerting questions, and unresolved issues that will drive us crazy until next week—and likely beyond Serial’s finale:
We might as well begin with the most confusing and, frankly, suspect person in all of Serial. Since listeners are privy to Adnan’s 2014 account of the fateful January 13, 1999, day on which Hae was murdered, he is so much closer and understandable to the audience. Jay hasn’t spoken yet to Koenig. As a result, all listeners really know about him are the discrepancies and holes in the version he told in 1999. Hell, Koenig says she waited for Jay to come home to work, and he spoke with her briefly but didn’t want to discuss the case. That’s completely his prerogative, but his absence is deafening. Koenig hasn’t directly accused Jay of killing Hae, but we’re all wondering if the teen the state’s case rested upon did the crime or if he is covering for someone else.
For one, here’s a nifty timeline to show there are some clear changes between Jay’s first interview with police, his second interview with police, and the testimony he gave at Adnan’s second trial (the first ended in a mistrial). Some are small enough, like changing which mall he and Adnan went to the day Hae was murdered. But others are big, like saying they drove to Patapsco State Park to smoke weed after Adnan allegedly strangled Hae in one account and completely ditching the entire event at trial. The timing of the account Jay tells at trial also doesn’t jive with the cell phone records. That chart doesn’t even take into account the differing versions Jay gave to his friends. In Episode 8 “The Deal with Jay” Koenig’s interview with Chris, a friend of Jay’s, reveals an account of Hae’s murder that still features Adnan as the perpetrator but describes it as a snap crime of punishment, not the premeditated version Jay told police.
Then, there are the accounts Jay’s peers gave. The most curious is that of a friend who meets up with Jay again at a party many years after the murder and trial. “When I pushed him for details… I didn’t get it,” he tells Koenig. “There was a lot of chummy punch me on the shoulder ‘Come on, man. Let’s just drink beers and hang out.’”
Then, there’s also the pretty sweet plea deal that Jay received. He pled guilty to accessory in first-degree murder and served not a day of jail time. In Episode 10 “The Best Defense is a Good Defense,” Koenig reveals that there’s evidence that state prosecutors helped Jay get a private defense attorney to represent him pro bono to escape prison. While the judge doesn’t find this as outrageous as Defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez does, Koenig is suspect—and so are we.
You also don’t have to be too much of a conspiracy theorist to wonder what’s the deal with Jay and his girlfriend, Stephanie, who happens to be Adnan’s close friend. It also just so happens that Stephanie’s parents aren’t too fond of Jay but, according to Serial, like Adnan. Gutierrez tries unsuccessfully to insinuate that Jay was cheating on Stephanie, suggesting ulterior motives. Jay uses Adnan and Stephanie’s close relationship as his own alibi. He tells the cops and testifies at trial that Adnan threatened to hurt Stephanie or get her involve if he went to police. Stephanie told police that Jay instructed her not to speak to Adnan: that could clearly be read a lot of ways. Stephanie refused to speak to Serial.
Asia McClain’s Letters
The letters from a classmate of Adnan and Hae’s at Woodlawn High School are one of the first pieces of evidence to get our juices flowing and suggest something is amiss with the murder conviction and trial. She writes to Adnan in prison on March 1, 1999, the day he is arrested, saying she remembers speaking to him on January 13 in the Woodlawn library after school. This, according to the state’s timeline, would have made it impossible that he killed Hae (more on the state’s claim Hae was dead by 2:36 p.m.). “I remembered chatting with you Throughout you’re [sic] actions that day, I have reason to believe in your innocence,” she writes. "My boyfriend and his best friend remember seeing you there, too."
McClain’s letters to Adnan in prison provide him with a rough alibi. Yet not only does his defense attorney not submit the letters or ask Asia to speak at his trial, she never even directly reaches out to her. It’s one of the WTF moments that makes you wonder about Gutierrez, who was disbarred the year after Adnan’s trial. She died in 2004, so we can’t get the full scoop on her. It’s why for much of Serial, Gutierrez herself is a red flag: did she actively make mistakes in Adnan’s case to get him convicted, force an appeal, and ultimately earn more money by extended her duration as his legal representation? In Episode 10 “The Best Defense is a Good Defense,” serial mostly resolves our concerns about Gutierrez and rules out the conspiracy theory that she threw Adnan’s case.
Still, the McClain letters stick out. By the time Adnan’s next lawyer tries to reach out to Asia to help in seeking post-conviction relief for Adnan, she refuses to testify. It’s years later, she has moved across the country, and she wants nothing to do with the case. She does speak to Koenig and stands by seeing and talking with Adnan the day of the murder. But she also trusts his conviction because, well, she trusts the way the court works (probably because she hasn’t been listening to Serial). “I trust the court system to do their due diligence. Because I was never questioned. I was never informed of anything pertaining to the case. I don't know why he was convicted,” she says. She’s firm, but contradictory, and something feels unresolved about it.
The Nisha Call is one of the strongest pieces of evidence suggesting that Adnan isn’t innocent. But that isn’t saying much. It’s a 3:32 pm call on January 13, 1999, on Adnan’s cell phone records to Nisha, a friend of his who did not know Jay. Nisha testified in trial that she spoke to both Jay and Adnan. Koenig makes a big deal out of this call and frames it as a massive red herring. The Nisha Call means someone without an allegiance to Jay testifies that he and Adnan are together, lending credence to Jay’s timeline of events and boosting his overall testimony. Adnan says that Jay had his car and phone during the time the call occurs, but if you’ve got Nisha testifying she spoke to both, then Adnan is a liar.
Despite the fact that Koenig treats this call as a massive problem for Adnan—she even calls it a “smoking gun”—it really isn’t. The call lasts over two minutes, which would be a while for Jay to talk to a girl he doesn’t know if Adnan isn’t there. But, Adnan suggest that Jay butt-dialed Nisha by mistake on his phone and accidentally left a two-minute voicemail. Nisha testifies that line doesn’t have voicemail, but it is possible she didn’t realize she had it, as Adnan’s family friend, Rabia Chaudry, points out. Moreover, Nisha insists that the call was made from the video shop Jay worked in; Jay doesn’t get his job at a video store until weeks later, which suggests Nisha is remembering a totally unrelated call. Also, as some conspiracy theories have pointed out, Jay could have made the call on his own to purposefully throw off tracks against him and frame Adnan.
Of course, Koenig and crew have their biases, but the fact that she makes such a big deal out of The Nisha Call as a red flag indicating Adnan’s potential guilt actually only shows how thin the evidence against him is. In retrospect, it really isn’t that arresting in terms of proving Adnan killed Hae.
Adnan allegedly murdered Hae in the parking lot of a Best Buy on a weekday afternoon. The premise is shaky right off the bat. To plan to murder someone in broad daylight in the parking lot of a popular retail shop seems like a bad idea. Also, a critical part of Jay’s testimony is that Adnan called him at 2:36 p.m. from a payphone at the Best Buy to tell him to pick him up because the murder was completed. Jay even draws a map of the Best Buy for police and says he remembers picking up Adnan there and that Adnan was wearing red gloves.
However, during the course of Serial’s airing, Laura, a friend of both Adnan’s and Jay’s, tells Koenig that there were no payphones at Best Buy. “I used to steal CDs from there all the time, so I was pretty aware of what was around,” she tells Koenig in Episode 9 “To Be Suspected.” “Man, there’s no phones there. I’m positive.” Koenig says she and her staff researched the Best Buy and could not find evidence that there was a payphone, which raises the obvious question of did Jay make up the Best Buy phone call from Adnan? If so, what else could he have made up?
2:36 Death Time
In that same episode, Summer, a friend of Hae’s, reached out to Koenig to tell her there’s no way she could have been dead by 2:36 p.m. on January 13, as the state argues. The state needs Hae to have been killed by 2:36 p.m. because that’s when Adnan allegedly called Jay to pick him up post-murder. Summer and Hae co-managed the high school wrestling team. The day Hae disappeared, Summer distinctly remembers arguing with Hae about not getting on the bus with them to a wrestling match because Summer was new to managing and needed Hae’s help. Summer told Koenig the conversation happened around 2:30 or 2:45 p.m. “I’m clear on that. 2:36 would not have been possible for her to even have met him,” Summer tells Koenig. “I know for a fact she was probably with me or at the school during that time.”
In a previous episode, Koenig tried to recreate the timeline from the end of school to reaching the Best Buy parking lot and successfully killing a person. It barely passes muster if Hae leaves the school at 2:15. Summer never spoke to the detective. Another classmate did tell police that she saw Hae at the school at 3:00 p.m .that day. “Can we all agree that whatever happened to Hae probably didn’t involve 2:36 call from that phone booth? I’m done considering that’s true,” says Koenig. Most of the Serial listeners are done, too.