Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t yet listened to the wildly popular 12-week podcast “Serial” and still plan to, you might want to stop reading.
Last week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals made an important decision in the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for the 1999 murder of his high school classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Until last week, his appeals had been unsuccessful. A once little-known murder case has attracted millions of listeners as former Baltimore Sun journalist and “This American Life” contributor Sarah Koenig delved into the story of Syed, who has maintained his innocence since his arrest. I can’t comment on the facts of the crime, Syed’s legal representation, or his innocence or guilt. But I can say Koenig and her team went to great lengths – as any great investigator would – to corroborate, identify and find evidence, locate and interview tough-to-find witnesses, and affirm or refute a wide variety of inconsistencies and unknowns through good old-fashioned gumshoe work.
Don’t Allow Preconceived Notions to Get in the Way of a Fact-finding Mission
If Koenig had any preconceived notions at the start of her involvement in Syed’s case her treatment of the case didn’t betray them. Throughout the podcast, she presented not only Syed’s version of events, but those told by others as well. She went back and forth in her own mind – citing her own frustrating ambivalence regarding Syed’s innocence or guilt, mostly due to evidence that was missing or not tested (like DNA), a key alibi witness who not only didn’t testify during his trial but wasn’t even interviewed, and Syed himself, whose often monotone and hopeless voice from jail left her baffled and grasping for more information. And then there was “Jay” – Syed’s stoner buddy turned co-conspirator who pointed the finger at Syed while flip-flopping his own version of events more times than I could count.
Tracking Down the Obscure but Critical Details
Koenig and her team not only told the story, but along the way did as reporters do – started to question what really happened to Hae Min Lee, and, in part, reinvestigated the murder. As Koenig readily admits, she isn’t a detective nor does she pretend to be. But she was tenacious and persistent in her pursuit of the truth, digging up some pretty remarkable old records and leaving almost no stone unturned. If you’ve listened to the podcast, you probably were excited when Koenig and her team finally unearthed an old AT&T contract that was attached as an exhibit to a class action lawsuit archived in the basement of a New York City courthouse. Or, what about her attempts to determine with certainty the existence of a public phone located at a particular Best Buy in Maryland in 1999? (As an aside, I found the former Best Buy shoplifter who recently came forward to be the most credible witness about the phone booth – or lack thereof – because, as she noted, when shoplifting CDs back then, she paid attention to the locations of cameras and phones.) And how about Koenig’s tenacity in tracking down alibi witness Asia McClain?
While it isn’t every day at Hillard Heintze that we investigators work on an old murder case, we are seeking an obscure fact from a bankruptcy filing, locating someone’s whereabouts on a given date through a traffic citation, uncovering an unknown asset through a UCC filing, identifying a potential new witness or associate through social media, understanding familial relationships through an archived obituary, or tracking down witnesses from 40 years ago through old school yearbooks. Regardless of the type of case, we are likewise tenacious in tracking down obscure details that most others wouldn’t find important but that could be critical to our client’s case.
Only Time Will Tell
Only time will tell in the case of Syed. What will happen with the appeal? Will he be given a new trial or will the court deny his request? What, if anything, will the DNA show? Will authorities ever find the truth? And will Hae Min Lee’s family ever have closure?