New Documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed Gives Hae Min Lee More Of Voice

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
There's no Wikipedia page for Hae Min Lee. There is, however, a page called "Murder of Hae Min Lee." That's what this high school senior has been reduced to — her 1999 death. You probably know who Hae Min Lee is from the podcast Serial, which spent a lot of time talking about her convicted murderer Adnan Syed and how he claims he had no role in her death.
Now, a new HBO documentary about the incident called, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Like with Serial, it reportedly spends a lot of time focusing on Syed, providing "exclusive access to Syed, the defence team, [and] the Syed family," among others. But it also makes a great effort to show Lee as a full person, not just as a victim.
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You probably already know a lot about Syed, rather than Lee, if you listened to Serial. His voice is all over that podcast thanks to taped telephone conversations between him and podcast host Sarah Koenig, who waxes poetic about pretty much everything about him. Listeners know where he was on that fateful day, where he says he wasn't, who his friends were, what he did at school, after school, what he thinks of everything from his trial to his time in jail and everything else in between.
You see, the true crime trend has a problem. All too often, the (often female) murder victims are left to be a detail in a case, while the (usually male) people in their lives who may or may not have had something to do with their death get full explorations of character, depth, and personality. Netflix's Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes spends little time on who the women were that Bundy was convicted of killing. Instead it's very focused on how charming and handsome Bundy supposedly was. Teresa Halbach also gets very little attention in the Making A Murderer series which is about her becoming a victim; the focus is instead on the man convicted of killing her, Steven Avery, who is shown as a victim claiming he is innocent, falsely framed for her murder, and mistreated by the justice system. And while, in both Syed's and Avery's cases, the documentaries are also looking to question the legal system as a whole (which is its own worthwhile question), the women who suffered at the hands of whoever it is that killed them often get sidelined.
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If all you knew of Lee was the brief anecdotes from Serial, you wouldn't really know her at all. Koenig describes her in the first episode as "smart, beautiful, cheerful, and a great athlete." Lee's family understandably declined to be interviewed for Serial, so Koenig relied on friends and acquaintances to build a picture of Lee. Koenig mentions several small facts about her in Episode 9 of the series. It took literally over five hours of programming to get these details about her from Lee's "non-family members" as Koenig calls her sources.
"She was cheerful and light and funny. That she loved the movie Titanic. That she sometimes put nail polish on just so she could pick it off. She wasn't insecure seemingly ever. Sprite was her favourite soda, the Dallas Cowboys her favourite team, not because she cared about football, but because she liked the colours blue and silver. That she could charm you without trying. That she was a good friend to her friends. She took in their problems and their pain and tried to help them if she could."
Flavorwire writer Jean Ho criticised Koenig's portrayal of Lee in a lengthy article. She called the details Koenig shared, "inexplicably specific yet insipid" and accused the podcast of utilising them "in a manner that compresses Hae’s personality into a raceless, 'typical American teenager' narrative."
So who is Lee outside of what Serial shared with its audience?
According to Flavorwire, she was born in 1980. The Baltimore Sun reported that a pre-teen Lee emigrated from South Korea to Baltimore, Maryland with her mother and brother. Inside Edition reported that Lee's mother wanted her children to have a "decent education and a decent future." By all accounts, Lee was setting herself up for just that.
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In a rare local media interview, Lee — dressed in her high school lacrosse uniform — told a reporter about school, sports, and work. "I played field hockey for two years, I've played lacrosse for two years, and I also manage boys wrestling," she said, adding that she also had a job. "I try to manage my schoolwork and my after school work."
Lee was more than just managing things. Inside Edition reported that she had competed at the varsity level in both her sports and was on the Honour Roll. She participated in ecology club, French club and Students Against Destructive Decisions. E! News reported that she was set to graduate with honours the year she died. She wanted to be an optician, according to the aforementioned Baltimore Sun article, and so she worked at LensCrafters after school.
Lee's friends and teachers eulogized her at a 1999 memorial covered by the Baltimore Sun in another article. Their words paint the picture of Lee that Koenig couldn't quite give. "She was one of those rare people you meet in life who is always happy, always joyful and full of love," her French teacher Hope Schab said. Athletic director Ralph Graham said, "There are no words to describe her smile." Assistant lacrosse coach Susie Twigg spoke of Lee's passion for her sport. "She grew into a leader. She was a dedicated player, and she was mad if you weren't, too."
There were also friendly jokes made about Lee. Graham said her frequent singing was often off-key, which prompted a laugh from the memorial attendees. Her friend Debbie Warren outed Lee as a Teletubbies fan and said Lee's jokes were often unfunny — although her attempts at humour still made friends smile, because Lee was so enthusiastic about it.
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There isn't much else known about Lee, because her life was tragically cut short as an 18-year-old. But all accounts paint a picture of a happy, well-liked teenager who excelled in sports and school and had dreams of doing more.
Her family released a statement in 2016 to honour their daughter in the face of all the publicity that Syed was getting from Serial and his new trial. "She stood up for what was right, regardless of popular opinion," the family's statement said according to Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton. They added, "In her diary, Hae once wrote: ‘Do love and remember me forever.’ We do, and we always will."
And now we can also remember who she really was, which is much more than a few quotes in a podcast.
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