In January of 1999, Hae Min Lee, an 18 year old high school student went missing for almost a month. It wasn’t until February 9th that she was found dead in Leakin Park in Baltimore, Maryland. It was deduced that she was killed around the time she went missing and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was the prime suspect. Adnan came from a very religious Pakistani family and was in a relationship with Hae on and off for a long time prior to her death. Adnan was accused of the crime and found guilty about a year later. He was charged with first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with an additional 30 years. The odds were against him from the beginning of his trial, as his Pakistani decent most likely played a part in his conviction.
The jury representing him had no one of similar culture or background to Adnan and moments in his trial indicated that a few of them seemed to have some kind of bias towards him or his religion or background. Additionally, the evidence that was used to convict him of the crime was unusable and unreliable, for one, the word of Jay Wilds, a known drug dealer and Adnan’s classmate claimed that Adnan called him and informed him that he killed Hae, and asked him to help bury the body. His testimony was the only story heard by the jury, and it was a story that changed multiple times over. That alongside the cell tower evidence, which is known to be unusable in court, were the key pieces of evidence used to prove Adnan guilty. On top of all of this, Adnan’s lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to properly represent him and often neglected his case. Despite all the evidence in favor of Adnan, there were too many stronger influences that swayed the outcome of the case. In the end, it simply wasn’t possible for justice to be served due to three main factors. Race and cultural background played an influential role, the jury wasn’t presented with enough usable or reliable evidence, and there was flawed legal representation, all of which deeply affected the outcome of Adnan’s trial.
It is believed that in the case of Adnan Syed, racial bias and prejudice affected his original trial and his push to get a retrial. In an interview with Moya Crockett, a journalist for Stylist Magazine, Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan and a constant advocate for him and his innocence said “the only stories about [Muslims] revolve around terrorism. So for me, it’s been really important that people are able to see this story of…an American Muslim boy, and understand the anti-Muslim bias that fed into his conviction way before 9/11…” Rabia went on to explain in the interview about how she observed Adnan’s family being nervous about speaking to police because of the corruption of law enforcement in the country were they originated. Moya concluded in her article that this nervousness resulted in many of his friends and family not feeling comfortable and safe to testify in defense of him.
Another statement from Rabia to the Baltimore Sun said that she thought that Adnan being a Pakistani Muslim might have “blinded police and prosecutors to the holes in their investigation.” Also, a memo was released by the state prosecutors before his trial that suggested that Hae’s death was an honor killing, when there was no prior evidence that his honor was hurt at all, and that he actually helped the police investigation before he was arrested, according to Rabia. Whether intentional or not, Adnan’s cultural background definitely played a part in his trial, for better or for worse.
It seems that racial profiling and bias wasn’t the only factor in Syed’s conviction, in fact, the main thing that sealed his fate was the testimony of Jay Wilds. According to “The Case Against Adnan Syed” documentary, students who attended Woodlawn High School with Jay said he was an exceptional story teller and that he could “…make you believe his shirt was green if it was blue.” Jay was interviewed by the police twice and then also testified in Adnan’s second trial. In Jay’s first interview, he said that Adnan showed up at his house at around 11:45am, when they proceeded to go to Westview mall where Adnan said he was going to kill Hae. Jay dropped Adnan off at school at 12:30pm and kept Adnan’s phone and his car. According to Jay, he didn’t hear from Adnan until around 3:40pm when he told Jay to meet him at a strip mall in the area. Jay said that after Adnan showed him Hae’s body, and that it wasn’t until around 7:30pm that they actually buried her. Over the course of his next interview and his testimony, his story changes quite a bit. In Jay’s second interview he said that they actually buried her at 6:55pm, while in his testimony said that this took place at 7:15pm. Jay described the location of Hae’s body and car almost exactly as they were when they were found, proving that he was telling the truth about his playing a part in the crime. It’s surprising that these inconsistencies in Jay’s testimony did not raise more concern from the jury.
Another indication that Jay Wilds’ could have possibly been lying about his timeline is the evidence that shows that Hae Lee’s car was not where Jay said they left it for as long as he said it was there. In the HBO documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed”, it is shown that the grass on which Hae’s car was supposedly parked on for 6 weeks in the middle of winter, did not have the physical indicators to support that. Also, when investigators interviewed a woman who had lived by the lot for over 40 years, she said that her son parked his car in that exact location almost every day and that if there was another car there for 6-8 weeks, she would have noticed. The fact that there are so many inconsistencies in Jay’s story proves that his word alone should not be trusted to convict someone.
The main piece of evidence that was used in the case was known as the cell tower evidence. This evidence used cell phone signals to place Adnan, or at least his phone, at the scene of the crime, which Jay claimed he was in possession of throughout the day. The evidence obtained from the cell signals was said, at that time, to be unreliable. When the cell evidence was obtained by the prosecution, there was a fax cover sheet that essentially stated that “Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location.” Although this data doesn’t prove that Adnan was not there and was not involved, it could not be counted on, therefore making it unusable in his case, yet it served as a major determining factor.
Additionally, the cover sheet deeming the cell tower evidence unreliable was never turned over to the defense, which is a direct violation of the Brady Rule. According to the Legal Information Institute, the Brady Rule demands that prosecutors “disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government’s possession to the defense.” In response to a Brady Violation, all possibly redeeming evidence that could exonerate the defendant, must be dropped and not used in the case. For the evidence to be dropped, according to the Legal Information Institute, that the defendant must, number one, reasonably prove that the outcome of their trial would have been different provided this information and, number two, that without the evidence would “…undermine the confidence of the verdict.” Also, it can not be treated like a simple error or mistake by the prosecution and all evidence must be taken as a whole, not in separate pieces or snippets of information. Without the cell tower evidence, the prosecution might not have been able to put Adnan in prison at all.
Adnan’s lawyer in his trial was a women by the name of Cristina Gutierrez, a renowned lawyer in the area and, according to the ‘Serial’ podcast, “…exactly the kind of person you would want defending you on a first degree murder charge.” Despite her supposed good reputation, she neglected many possibly exonerating pieces of evidence in Syed’s trial. Guilty or not, Adnan missed many chances to possibly clear his name due to the lack of proper legal representation.
The first piece of evidence that Gutierrez failed to exploit was Asia McClain, Adnan’s alibi witness. Asia claimed to have seen and spoken to Syed at the time when Hae was killed, and when Jay Wilds claimed he was with him. Asia wrote a letter to Adnan informing him that she remembered speaking to him in the Woodlawn Public Library, and that she had discovered that there are security cameras in the library that could possibly prove his case. She wrote “I want you to look into my eyes and tell me of your innocence.” Evidently, McClain was sure that Syed wasn’t guilty of killing Hae, but nonetheless, she wasn’t called in to testify and the jury never heard her story.
According to PBS News Hour, when asked why Asia why she never testified in Adnan’s case, she said that she was spoken to by Kevin Urick, the prosecutor in the trial. “He told me there was no merit to any claims that Syed did not get a fair trial.” Asia McClain was not only ignored by Cristina Gutierrez, but also lead to believe that Adnan’s trial was completely fair by the prosecution. It seems that if the information Gutierrez knew was properly exhibited to the jury, then the outcome of the case would have been very different.
The other major evidence that was let go by the defense and Cristina Gutierrez was the lividity shown on Hae’s body. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines lividity as “Reddish- to bluish-purple discoloration of the skin due to the settling and pooling of blood following death.” After death, the blood in the body pools to the lowest point of the body, and when Hae was found, the lividity was frontal, suggesting that she was on her front side for long enough for her blood to pool, which would be about 8-12 hours. But when she was found, she was laying on her right, indicating that she was in another location, on her front side for around 8-12 hours. She also had markings on her upper chest and shoulders that didn’t match any of the attributes of the trunk of her car, where she supposedly was for most of the day. So from the time when she was last seen when school ended at 2:15pm, assuming that she was killed within the hour, she would have had to be at another location up until around 11:30 pm or 12:00 am, when according to Jay’s story, they buried her between 6:55pm and 7:30pm that night. This evidence would have likely destroyed Wilds’ story if it were presented to the jury, but Gutierrez never took the proper action to get the proof into the hands of the defense.
In the end, it seems Wny Adnan Syed is innocent man. There is no physical evidence to prove him guilty and there were too many inconsistencies with Jay’s story for it to be relied upon. The prosecution got ahold of possibly exonerating evidence that could have turned the tide in the trial, and they committed a direct Brady Violation by not sharing the unreliability of the cell phone evidence with the defense, which mandates that it should be disregarded, and it wasn’t. The alibi from Asia McClain was never called in. She claimed that she saw Syed at the library at the time of the crime and never made and appearance in court, as the prosecution discouraged her from coming forward by leading her to believe the trial was completely fair.
If all the facts are taken into account, Jay Wilds is the obvious suspect and is likely Hae Min Lee’s murderer. Although there is no known motive, he described the location of her body and her car very accurately, proving that he was involved. Countless events involving him don’t add up, such as the fact that he changed his timeline of events multiple times before he even testified, switching up the order of events, times and people involved. After all, he was the most knowledgeable about the crime after it happened. But in the end, there were too many outside influences that affected the case. Adnan’s race and cultural background played an influential role, as both Adnan’s own community were nervous to cooperate fully and not a single juror was actually representative of Adnan’s own background, the jury was presented with unreliable evidence from Jay and from the prosecution in the form of the cell phone records. And finally Cristina Gutierrez provided flawed legal representation, both by not fighting a Brady violation and not bringing forth a key alibi witness. The results of Adnan’s trial could have been very different if there weren’t as many outside influences and inconveniences, and he would likely be a free man today.