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HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed comes armed with an agenda and little else

The deep dive into the case Serial made famous tries to be nuanced and sensitive, but can’t get past its pro-Syed bias.

An animated sequence from The Case Against Adnan Syed depicting the diary of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore student murdered in 1999.
Sara Gunnarsdottir for HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

A mere two days before the new HBO documentary series The Case Against Adnan Syed debuted the first of its four episodes, its subject had his conviction reinstated for the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend.

Syed is one of the nation’s most famous murder suspects, thanks to the massively viral success of the 2014 podcast Serial, which took a magnifying glass to the case. In 2016, Syed used his very last appeal to argue that he’d had a negligent defense counsel during his 2000 trial for Lee’s murder, suggesting, among other things, that his defense had failed to present potentially exonerating evidence on his behalf. Syed succeeded in the lower courts, which issued a ruling in 2018 that would have granted him a retrial.

But the new 4-3 decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals has reversed the earlier decision on the grounds that even if Syed’s defense counsel had taken steps to present other evidence in Syed’s favor, it would not have been enough to affect the overall outcome of the case.

In other words, the court believes there was sufficient evidence presented in the original 2000 trial to find Syed guilty.

This new setback is a stunning blow to Syed’s quest to clear his name. But it provides crucial context for anyone watching the HBO documentary, which has billed itself as an objective deep dive into the case. “When you are working a case that you think is a wrongful conviction,” says Rabia Chaudry, one of Syed’s most loyal and public advocates, in the series’ trailer, “you’re only on one side, and that side is getting to the truth.”

But The Case Against Adnan Syed has scant new ground to cover, and very little apparent interest in taking an objective view of the case or of Syed himself. According to Chaudry, her book about Syed’s case was optioned to create the documentary, which seems to have a very clear, very similar agenda: to argue unequivocally for Syed’s innocence. The result is a look at the case that arguably provides a public disservice by essentially taking Syed and his presentation of himself at face value — which effectively makes it an unreliable narrator.

The Case Against Adnan Syed tries to expand on Serial, but largely fails to provide more information than its predecessor

Over the course of its 2014 debut, Serial became what was then the most viral podcast in history, thanks to its gripping analysis of the complex layers of Syed’s case. Serial’s huge cultural saturation saw its cast of characters memed and parodied everywhere from social media to Saturday Night Live — turning the question of Syed’s guilt or innocence into an intense public debate, a modern water cooler conversation.

Since then, the podcast’s first season has had persistent ripple effects. Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s who first brought the case to Serial’s producers’ attention, has become household name among true crime fans. (She now hosts her own popular true crime podcast, Undisclosed.) It’s also created an entire massive community of Reddit sleuths on r/serialpodcast and other subreddits.

This community has, in the intervening years since Syed’s case became national news, experienced something of a schism, with Reddit users who’ve become convinced that Syed is guilty, often labeled “guilters,” frequently berating and driving out supporters of his innocence. In addition, guilters have doxxed and harassed people, mainly women, who’ve become involved in advocating for Syed’s retrial.

All the while, the #freeAdnan hashtag has circulated among the millions of Serial fans on social media who now believe Syed was a victim of injustice — and that, at the very least, Syed deserved a better defense, and that the murder victim, Lee, deserved a far better criminal investigation.

It’s in this context that The Case Against Adnan Syed director Amy Berg — known for previous documentaries like An Open Secret and West of Memphis that explored procedural and systemic injustice — is attempting to make a case for Syed’s innocence. The title of the new series is deliberately misleading; from its opening moments, which focus on Syed’s family and Chaudry, Serial fans will understand which “side” the documentary is on.

In fact, the documentary falls into the well-known true crime trap of taking the possible perpetrator at his word, allowing him to paint himself as a bright, innocent, all-American boy, while depriving viewers of the chance to fairly evaluate what evidence there might be to the contrary. Perhaps it’s this one-sidedness in the mainstream narrative surrounding the case — which Serial introduced to the public as a mystery that potentially implicated the wrong man — that’s turned Reddit “guilters” into bullies on the subject. But if they were hoping for a more nuanced approach to the case on HBO, The Case Against Adnan Syed won’t provide it.

Syed’s case is unusual in that virtually everything the public knows about it comes from a single source: Serial season one. So The Case Against Adnan Syed is almost duty-bound to set itself up as being ... not Serial. Consequently, nearly all of its directorial and editorial choices feel less like an attempt at an authentic investigation and more like an attempt to respond and react to Serial and to criticisms of Serial.

This is most evident in the series’ first episode, which simultaneously assumes that its viewers already know most of the details of Syed’s case, and that viewers will appreciate a review of the last month of Lee’s life from her perspective and the perspectives of many of her classmates. But it frustratingly evades ever offering a straightforward summary of the actual details of the case against Syed, in favor of rehashing what a great guy everyone thought he was.

In this sense, it opens itself up to many of the same criticisms recently leveled at the widely castigated Netflix documentary on Ted Bundy: It allows the accused to speak for himself without any pushback; it allows his community’s glowing support and adoration of him to overshadow his documented behavior — which was, in Lee’s own framing, controlling, temperamental, and possessive; and it fails to present viewers with a clear and straightforward summary of what he was actually accused of doing and what the evidence against him was.

The documentary also takes pains to humanize Lee, quoting at length from her diary and bringing her to life as vividly as possible, all while revisiting Lee and Syed’s school, their Baltimore neighborhoods, and their classmates’ memories of them both. However, it undermines its commitment to Lee’s memory by approaching Syed’s innocence with an utter lack of skepticism, a stance it maintains in each of its first three episodes. (Whether the final episode, which was not made available to critics, will reveal a different tone or approach is anyone’s guess, but so far all signs point to no.)

One of the documentary’s goals is obviously to fill in the visuals for fans of Serial who know names and locations like Asia McClain, Leakin Park, and the notorious Best Buy by heart, but who may have never seen the people and places behind the names until now. That’s a nice touch, and it’s one of the most important aspects of the new documentary. But in its haste to provide local color, The Case Against Adnan Syed encounters several unfortunate pitfalls.

The Case Against Adnan Syed plays fast and loose with facts and hearsay

The documentary is often both at its strongest and its weakest when it steers away from examining the details of the case and focuses instead on the diverse urban community affected by Lee’s death and Syed’s conviction. It’s a strength because Lee’s friends and classmates have plenty of entertaining, savvy, and insightful things to say about Lee, Syed, and the cultural context surrounding Syed’s trial and conviction. But they’re almost never able to give us significant insight into the facts of the case itself, meaning that most of what they tell us throughout the documentary is essentially speculation and hearsay.

The eliding of fact and rumor in this circumstance feels sloppy, especially given that The Case Against Adnan Syed seems to want to frame itself as a thorough deep-dive investigation that builds off the Serial investigation to provide more context, more texture, and even more exculpatory information. The producers even hired an independent investigative firm with the goal of identifying other suspects in Lee’s murder beyond Syed.

But this is potentially a lapse in journalism ethics, since the production — which began filming in 2015 and covered Syed’s initially overturned conviction in 2016 — would essentially be assisting with Syed’s case in the event of his being granted a retrial, since Chaudry is his official legal advocate.

Further, it rarely checks in on its independent investigators, and when it does, the results are lackluster: At one point, they talk to a local resident who’s convinced that Lee’s car couldn’t have sat untouched for six weeks on a vacant lot in the resident’s neighborhood without her knowing. This is pure speculation. But for the most part, The Case Against Adnan Syed seems fine with using that as a stand-in for hard evidence.

It’s content, for example, to have an ex-girlfriend of the prosecution’s star witness, Syed’s casual acquaintance Jay Wilds — who is publicly named in full in the documentary, after Serial identified him merely as Jay — recount details about a conversation she had with Wilds over the phone. This reported conversation does little more than rehash speculation about Syed’s motives, which were thoroughly canvassed by Serial. It also becomes fodder for the documentary to allow advocates for Syed — including Chaudry and frequently Syed himself, chatting away from prison — to argue their version of the case without serious pushback.

In one extended sequence in the third episode of The Case Against Adnan Syed, Susan Simpson, a lawyer working as an advocate for Syed, argues that the police heavily massaged the story that Wilds was telling them to make his story match the evidence from cell phone tower records that were such a huge factor in the case, and later in Serial. The editing, which cuts between Simpson’s explanations of the convoluted cell phone records and interviews with experts and witnesses backing up her story, makes this argument seem highly convincing; it’s far and away the most effective sequence in the documentary.

Yet it obscures the basic fact that the most significant aspect of Wilds’s story — that Syed showed him Lee’s body, and Wilds then helped bury her — has remained consistent through multiple tellings, despite other details changing over the years.

That commitment to obfuscation, which comes at the expense of viewers, the victim, and perhaps even the truth, is the core issue that makes The Case Against Adnan Syed feel like pointless wheel-spinning.

In its quest to support Adnan Syed’s innocence, The Case Against Adnan Syed creates more doubt

At one point, one of the documentary’s investigators remarks, “Without Jay, what did [the prosecution] have?” But it’s to The Case Against Adnan Syed’s detriment that it never fully explains to its audience what the prosecution did have. For example, the prosecutor in the case, Kevin Urick, continues to stand by the technology used in 1999 to create the since-disputed cell phone records.

More compellingly, Urick — who does not appear in the documentary, though it’s unclear whether he was invited to participate — has continually framed the case against Syed as “a routine case of domestic violence,” a framing the documentary more or less disregards.

In that same vein, here are some pieces of evidence the prosecution had against Syed, per court records, that the documentary either downplays or ignores:

  • Lee described Syed in her diary as “possessive,” prone to engaging in controlling behavior, and unable to accept their breakup. This portrayal was backed up on the witness stand during Syed’s trial by one of her two best friends, Debbie Warren, who appears in the documentary to provide a supportive picture of the couple’s relationship.
  • As the documentary acknowledges, Lee noted repeatedly in her diary that Syed saw her as a stumbling block to his religious faith; what it omits is that she also wrote that he called her a “devil.” (Serial host Sarah Koenig asked Syed about this at one point on the podcast; he told her he might have been joking.)
  • Lee’s teacher, Hope Schab, testified during the 2000 trial that Lee once asked her to lie to Syed about her whereabouts because they’d been fighting and she didn’t want him to know where she was.
  • Lee wrote a break-up note to Adnan, later found by police inside his house, upon which he’d written the words “I’m going to kill.” This evidence is not mentioned in the first three episodes of The Case Against Adnan Syed; on Serial, host Sarah Koenig dismissed it as “a detail you’d find in a cheesy detective novel” and then moved on without further scrutiny, and without noting that it was brought up on the witness stand at Syed’s trial.

None of this, of course, is convincing evidence by itself. But it’s strange that The Case Against Adnan Syed should make such a concerted push to humanize Hae Min Lee while simultaneously glossing over so many of the negative aspects of her own framing of her relationship with Syed. The documentary’s first episode strives to describe their relationship with the heady allure of young love, even animating a cartoon version of the couple walking hand in hand through flowers and featuring classmate after classmate who describes Syed in glowing and admirable terms.

It all makes The Case Against Adnan Syed feel redundant as an exercise in exploring Syed’s guilt or innocence. The documentary does advance a compelling argument that for a number of reasons — including racist stereotypes, poor counsel, and shady prosecution deals to implicate him without forensic evidence — Syed did not receive a fair trial. But this isn’t news. Syed’s last four years of appeals have been built on this well-publicized argument, and his newly reinstated conviction will likely just increase the clamor to revisit the unfair circumstances surrounding it.

When it’s not leaving out vital explanatory context, or inserting speculation in place of evidence, the documentary is largely recycling investigative arguments and well-known facts about the injustices in the case that were previously raised by Serial, all while neglecting to consider evidence that might have allowed it to paint a fuller, more nuanced, and more complex look at Syed, his life, and the complicated role that his religion may have played in his relationship with Lee.

Above all, it’s important to remember, as Hazel Cills eloquently wrote recently at Jezebel, that the Lee family believes Syed to be guilty, and has repeatedly expressed its outrage and hurt at the attempts of Syed’s supporters to relitigate the case. The Lee family did not participate in Serial or in The Case Against Adnan Syed, and only two members of their local Korean community are interviewed on camera in the documentary. And while the Lee family’s belief in Adnan’s guilt doesn’t make it true, the documentary hardly interrogates what aspects of the case or the trial might have led to their strong collective belief in the state’s case against him. This feels like a big narrative gap.

By contrast, as The Case Against Adnan Syed frequently consults Syed and his family, allowing him, as Serial often did, to narrate his own version of events, it’s hard not to feel that in making a case for Adnan’s innocence, we’re inevitably allowing his voice, and those of his supporters, to drown out the voices of Lee and her family.

If this documentary added anything substantially new to the conversation that Serial began in 2014, its efforts might feel more worthwhile. Instead, in its determination to uncritically embrace the narrative Serial created, it accomplishes the opposite of its aim to show that Syed was wrongfully convicted.

As someone who personally believes in Syed’s probable innocence, and who definitely believes his trial was unjust, I was left frustrated by The Case Against Adnan Syed’s unwillingness to objectively present me with the case against Syed — especially given how loudly the case for his innocence has already been trumpeted. In the end, the whole exercise felt pointless.