21 June 2015


Sarah Koenig
Sarah Koenig
Several months ago, a reader brought to my attention a new PBS series called Serial, an exploration of an old Baltimore murder case. In 1999, a high school girl was violently killed. A low-level drug dealer fingered her secret teenage boyfriend who was convicted of her homicide and sentenced to life plus thirty years.

The boy’s aunt, Rabia Chaudry, asked NPR journalist Sarah Koenig to take another look at the case. Koenig has shared with readers the results of her research as she compiled it, often editing until the moment of broadcast. In a voice that combines both girlishness and maturity, she bared her uncertainty in this confusing case. The Guardian called the journey “slow-drip storytelling.”

Timeline 1

Timeline 2
If you haven’t been following Serial, it comes highly recommended. High school senior Adnan Syed was accused and convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Although a number of suspects cropped up, police focused on Adnan Syed based on an accusation from a cannabis dealer friend, Jay Wilds, who claimed he helped bury the body after Syed showed it to him in the trunk of his car.

While Jay’s multiple stories contained a number of inconsistencies and the timeline was thinner than a jailhouse sandwich, police felt his accusation was plausible. No one has accused the original investigators of incompetence, only Syed’s lawyer. At least one witness placed Syed elsewhere, but that person wasn’t allowed to testify.

While several suspects have surfaced, one thing strikes me. If Jay took part in burying the body and if we posit Adnan Syed is innocent, then my attention turns to Jay himself, the one person who admits to being at the scene of the crime… at least where the body was found. And the journalists turned up a connection with jewelry.

It’s a national shame, but the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act cuts short appeals and prevents evidence of actual innocence being considered for appeals. Maryland places an especially high burden upon the wrongly convicted. Thus it’s often journalists and the clamoring of private organizations that give a little hope to the wrongly convicted. In other words, justice is often in the hands of believing individuals, not that we have any certainty Syed didn’t kill Hae– we simply don’t know. What we do understand is that a teen probably didn’t receive a fair trial.

If you haven’t heard the original broadcast and Serial podcasts, now is a good time to catch up with this obsession. Thanks to Koenig, NPR, and the public, it appears Adnan Syed will finally get another trial. Time affects evidence, memories, and the number of witnesses that can still be found, so it’s unlikely we’ll learn of a smoking gun. The Syed family simply wants a fair trial for that long-ago boy accused of killing that long-ago girl.

Note: You can listen to podcasts through your browser, but you can also subscribe to podcasts through iTunes and other dedicated players for your tablet, iPod, smart phone, and ordinary computers. Look for a button or menu item regarding podcasts and subscribing. This article about iTunes and Juice is dated, but might help you get started.


  1. My attention also turns to Jay. What happened to him? He admitted helping to bury the body. Was he ever charged with anything?

  2. Sounds interesting. I'll have to check Serial out.

  3. I guess I'm naive, 'cause I always think justice should trump everything, but I know it doesn't. Still, the fact that one can't present new evidence is crazy.

  4. Hi Louis! It's been months since I listened to those broadcasts (podcasts), but I can't recall Jay was charged with anything. I have the impression he traded his knowledge for prosecutors overlooking some of his selling of marijuana, but I'm having difficulty finding anything solid.

    Janice, I think you would enjoy it. I should mention podcasts are playable through browsers, but also programs like iTunes that can subscribe to podcasts.

    Paul, I agree with you. Sadly, hardliners, convinced murderers were somehow exploiting the system, determined 'closure' was more important than actual justice. It takes a gutsy judge to reopen old cases in a search for the truth.

  5. It's sad that there is so little justice in the Justice system. I wonder how many innocent people have wasted away in prison cells because of someone's lies or because of public pressure to solve a case? I don't think the numbers are huge, but who knows?

    Prison is a training facility for many criminals to better hone their craft. Someone sent there for a minor offense comes out knowing a lot more than when he or she went in.

  6. Vicki, you're correct on both counts. People should be frightened by the numbers of convicts proved they were wrongly incarcerated and convicted by the Innocence Project.

  7. Serial is getting great buzz for all the reasons you mentioned, Leigh. And the case definitely smells wrong. FYI, informants specifically and false accusations in general are a major cause of wrongful convictions. In addition to The Innocence Project, check out The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the U of Michigan Law School. The Registry records all known exonerations (since 1989, about 1600 to date) and the causes of the wrongful conviction. Perjury/false accusations were a contributing factor in roughly two-thirds of all overturned homicide convictions. The Innocence Project specifically identified Informants/Snitches as a factor in 15% of the 300-plus convictions they've overturned with DNA evidence, so false accusations come from many other sources, including mistaken eyewitnesses.

    It seems there’s no precise estimate of the number of wrongful convictions in the U.S., partly because the court system is a patchwork of different states, jurisdictions, etc. with various reporting requirements and data formats. Estimates I've seen (including based on a survey of judges, attorneys, and police officials) range from 5,000 to 10,000 wrongful convictions per year. Other studies estimate anywhere from 20,000 up to 100,000 individuals are currently imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. But nobody really knows.

    In fairness, these estimates suggest 95% to 99% of prisoners are guilty, and I’m sure it’s not easy to push that number to 100%. But it’s troubling that justice researchers have identified key causes of wrongful imprisonments – including informants, false accusations, unfamiliar/untrained eyewitnesses, etc. – yet juries still hand out convictions using those factors.

    For more, see the statistics and case studies at The Innocence Project and The National Registry of Exonerations.

  8. Peter, many thanks. Although I've reported on the Innocence Project, I'm embarrassingly unaware of The National Registry of Exonerationa. I shall correct that. Thanks, Peter.

  9. A Broad Abroad22 June, 2015 00:00

    “At least one witness placed Syed elsewhere, but that person wasn't allowed to testify.”

    “…the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act cuts short appeals and prevents evidence of actual innocence being considered for appeals.”

    I realise I'm working with limited knowledge of the case, but these two statements beggar belief. Is Justice System a misnomer?


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