What Happened On Serial, The Podcast That Introduced The World To The Case Of Adnan Syed

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
As Serial host Sarah Koenig tells us herself in the first episode of the podcast, people's memories are unreliable. As HBO's The Case Against Adnan Syed brings his case and the Hae Min Lee murder mystery back into the public conversation this month, you might not remember everything you once did about what happened on Serial season 1 in late 2014. (Unless, that is, you're one of the people who have still been actively posting on Reddit about it or making your own spinoff podcasts in the years since then.)
We're not going to go through an episode-by-episode recap of the show here — you'll find that easily enough on Serial's site and elsewhere. Instead, we'll review the main points and themes the show covered. You could go back and listen to the whole thing again, but be warned: Without Mail Chimp as a sponsor, it's just not the same.
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The Alibi: Justice Failed
The show began at what felt like the end of Syed's story. His friend's sister, Rabia Chaudry, had contacted Koenig as a last-ditch effort to get media attention for what Chaudry saw as a failure of the justice system, as the Maryland courts repeatedly denied his attempts at appeal.
On the same day a jury found Syed guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Chaudry discovered that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, had completely failed to follow up on a signed affidavit from a classmate who said she saw Syed in the library at the supposed time of the murder. From then on, Chaudry had been trying to help Syed and his family get him a retrial on the grounds that Gutierrez had been pretty bad at her job.
Koenig isn't a crime reporter, but as a producer for This American Life, she was very good at following the thread of a question to its answer. So, she diligently hunted down this alibi, Asia McClain, and eventually found her. McClain had no idea that her testimony might have been the key to proving Syed's innocence.
After speaking to McClain, however, she realized that there were even more questions to ask about the case, because if that's all it took to free Syed, wouldn't it have worked long ago?
Teenagers Remember Things (Or Don't)
The other theme of the first episode, which then carried on throughout the season, is the fact that so much of the case relies on teenagers remembering what they did on one specific day, weeks before they were interviewed by police. Koenig faced an even greater challenge in getting them to remember that day 15 years after the fact.
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Most frustrating was the fact that Syed didn't remember specific details about the afternoon of Lee's murder. To him, he said, it was a regular day, even though that night police called him to ask if he'd seen his ex-girlfriend.
Later in the show, Deirdre Enright, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia, told Koenig that this is normal.
"I love hearing that because somewhere along the line I’ve started realizing that when you have an innocent client, they are the least helpful people in the whole world, because they don’t know," Enright said.
At the same time, so much of the podcast and the investigation asked everyone else involved — the state's key witness Jay Wilds, his friend Jenn Pusateri, Syed's and Lee's friends, the person who sold concessions in front of the school — to recount so many specific details about the timeline of the day, it's maddening.
A Love Story... Gone Wrong?
Fans of CW dramas, YA novels, and Romeo & Juliet can all attest to the appeal of the star-crossed lovers aspect of Syed and Lee's relationship. Both had strict immigrant parents who did not want their children dating. Both were nonetheless outgoing, smart kids who were attracted to each other and did it anyway, meeting in secret and figuring out all kinds of ways to speak on the phone without their parents' knowledge. There was even a dramatic moment in which Syed's parents showed up at Homecoming, chastised him for being at a school dance, and dragged him away.
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Lee kept a diary and wrote about her feelings for Syed often. The boyfriend she described was super sweet and attentive. In interviews, her friends agreed that they were in love, though Lee's friend Aisha seemed annoyed that he would sometimes intrude on her time with her friends. They dated from April to December 1998. Eventually, though, it seems like Lee found herself more interested in her Lenscrafters coworker Don. She broke up with Syed in November, got back together with him after two weeks, and then broke up again for good in late December. Lee started dating Don on January 1 and was immediately smitten.
Wilds told police that Syed had said he was going to kill Lee for breaking up with him. Prosecutors painted a picture of a boy who felt she had ruined his honor, especially after he had risked so much to be with her. Syed disputed this representation of their breakup and said he was okay with it. He was even beginning to flirt with other girls by the time of Lee's murder.
On the back of a note Lee wrote Syed after their first breakup, Syed and Aisha joked back and forth during health class, and his attitude about it seemed casual. But when the note was brought up as evidence in court, the words "I will kill" were scrawled on top. How did Syed really feel about Lee by January 13, especially once everyone knew she was seeing Don? This is a central mystery.
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The Deal With Jay
That's the title of episode 8 of the podcast, and it echoes both Koenig's and every listener's prevailing question about this enigma of a man. Syed and Wilds never described themselves as good friends, and Wilds had graduated from Woodlawn a year before. But Wilds' girlfriend of several years, Stephanie, was close friends with Syed, and January 13 was her birthday. That's the reason Syed said he met up with Wilds in the middle of the school day, to go shopping for a birthday present for Stephanie.
Then, Syed let Wilds take his car and his cell phone, while he went to school for the rest of the day. According to Wilds, they next spoke when Syed called him from the pay phone at Best Buy, asking him to pick him up after he murdered Lee. Wilds said Syed showed him Lee's body in the trunk of her car in the parking lot (in a later interview with the Intercept, he said that was a lie and he actually saw the body in front of his grandmother's house). They allegedly parked her car in a Park and Ride, bought weed, smoked it, and went back to school so Syed could be seen at track practice. Later that evening, Wilds says Syed convinced him to help bury Lee's body in Leakin Park (with Wilds' shovels), and then leave Lee's car on a nearby street.
The first question anyone has about Wilds is: Why would Syed call him to help dispose of Lee's body, not a closer friend? Wilds' catchy answer: "I'm the criminal element of Woodlawn."
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How much of a criminal was he? We only know for sure that he sold pot, though some speculate that he did more than that. Whatever it was, he still had to take a lot of crappy minimum wage jobs, such as being a cashier at a discount store and a porn video store.
People described Wilds to Koenig in different, contradictory ways. Some said he was like Woodlawn's Dennis Rodman, an unconventional Black kid who had piercings and listened to rock music. A few claimed he could be threatening, though. Syed's own lawyer once put it to him that he might have been jealous of Syed's close relationship with Stephanie, which would be a good motive for him to lie to police about Syed killing Lee. Some have even speculated that he could have killed Lee to frame Syed.
All we know for sure is that Wilds changed his story several times in his interviews with police, but that he was able to tell them where Lee's car was parked. Pusateri said he told her about the murder right away, and another acquaintance said he seemed afraid for his life and for Stephanie's safety in the days and weeks that followed. None of that looked good for Syed.
But there is a prevailing theory that Wilds was supposedly coached to provide the official version of events by police and prosecutors. Promoters of this theory use the fact that prosecutor Kevin Urick helped Wilds acquire a pro bono lawyer, who then had him sign a plea deal, as its basis. The plea meant he faced no charges as an accessory to murder, and theorists claim this might have been motivation for him to say whatever they wanted him to with regard to Syed.
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Cell Phone Towers
This part of the podcast can get mind-numbingly boring: The question of whether cell phone records from the day of Lee's murder backed up Wilds' version of events. During the trial, prosecutors pointed to all the times when calls that Wilds and Syed made pinged towers close to where Wilds said they were, particularly when they supposedly buried Lee in Leakin Park. But Koenig pointed out that there was also a stretch of time where the towers and Wilds' testimony do not match up, and no one mentioned those during the trial.
The prosecution had a cell phone expert on the stand named Abraham Waranowitz who testified that all of this data was reliable. But nearly a year after Serial aired, Waranowitz signed an affidavit for Syed's defense saying that he doesn't stand by his testimony because the prosecutor neglected to show him the fax cover sheet, which had a disclaimer saying that geographical data for incoming calls was not reliable. This information was critical in getting Syed a retrial, which the Maryland Supreme Court is currently considering.
There's also "The Nisha Call." Though Syed said Wilds wasn't with him and had his cell phone at 3:30, his phone called a girl named Nisha, whom only Syed, and not Wilds, knew. This fact seems damning to Syed, and it troubled Koenig throughout the podcast. Toward the end of the season, however, her producers came to the conclusion that it could have been a butt dial, even if Nisha said she didn't have voice mail.
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Anti-Muslim Prejudice
For much of Serial, Koenig made little note of how Syed's Pakistani and Muslim heritage may have affected his case. But in episode 10, we heard from Syed's mother about how much she feels he was discriminated against. The Muslim community came together to support him, raising money for his defense. That should seem like a good thing, backing up the claim that he had good character. Instead, prosecutors used it against him, convincing the judge to deny him bail because they claimed the community might help him flee the country to Pakistan.
Though this was before 9/11 really turned up Islamophobia in this country, the prosecutors used certain coded language to indicate Syed's faith was what drove him to kill Lee. They spoke of other instances in which jilted Pakistani men killed their wives or girlfriends, ignoring the fact that Syed was born and raised in Baltimore.
While the jurors said they weren't influenced by his religion, one juror still indicated his bias, telling Koenig, "I’m not sure how the culture is over there, how they treat their women. But I know in some cultures women are second-class citizens, and maybe that’s what it was."
Sarah Koenig's Relationship With Syed
Like This American Life, Serial has a very specific tone that is not at all like a news program. There's no pretense that its host is a completely objective reporter, but rather a real human being following a story and telling it to us as she does. This is part of what makes Serial a great, entertaining listen. Koenig openly talks about how her opinion swings back and forth about Syed's guilt or innocence, depending on her latest findings. We can hear in her every conversation with Syed that she likes him as a person.
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There are also all the fun parts of the show that kept people listening. The exchanges between Koenig and producers Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis — the shrimp sale at The Crab Crib — keep the whole thing from feeling like a dark, gruesome murder mystery. No doubt, that's why people who weren't normally interested in true crime got hooked.
That's also why many had problems with Serial. For anyone looking for cold, hard facts about a murder case, it is frustrating. Even Syed didn't like it. He wanted her to be a journalist who maintained her distance while finding some key to his case that would prove his innocence.
"I didn’t want to do anything that could even remotely seem like I was trying to befriend you or curry favor with you," Syed wrote in a letter to Koenig. "I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to accuse me of trying to ingratiate myself with you or manipulate you."
Even some of the amateur sleuths who first became interested in the case because of Serial criticize the show's approach. Those who adamantly believe that Syed is guilty have alleged that Koenig fell in love with Syed while speaking to him.
In any event, the attention Serial brought to the case — compounded by other podcasts and media reporting that followed — was most likely influential in getting the court to revisit the evidence. March 8, of this year, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled to reinstate Syed’s conviction, even as they agreed that Gutierrez messed up his case. His current lawyer has vowed to keep fighting, which means this story isn’t quite over yet.
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