the case against adnan syed

The 7 Biggest Takeaways From The Case Against Adnan Syed

Photo: HBO

Much like Serial, HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed ended without a real conclusion. Syed is still in jail for the murder of Hae Min Lee after the Maryland Court of Appeals denied him a new trial on March 8, 2019, just two days before the four-part documentary debuted. Still, the final episode, “Time Is the Killer,” contained multiple revelations and allegations that point toward Syed’s innocence and, like the podcast, raise even more questions about how the case was handled.

There’s a new story by Jay Wilds, the prosecution’s star witness, that changes his testimony yet again and accuses the police of fabricating his story; information about Lee’s autopsy that changes the timeline of her death; the lack of Syed’s DNA at the crime scene (that part was already spoiled days before this episode’s airing — more on that later); and some thin but intriguing evidence pointing to two other potential killers that could, at the least, be grounds for reasonable doubt.

And that’s only part of it. Even though it’s not a spoiler that Syed is currently in prison with no tangible route to freedom in sight, the episode also reveals the background legal maneuvers that kept him there and how he had the option to agree to a plea deal, all while not knowing that his mother was battling a life-threatening illness.

To help you make sense of all the twists and turns in the finale of The Case Against Adnan Syed, we’ve compiled the biggest takeaways from the episode. Naturally, spoilers abound.

Syed’s mother has Leukemia

Footage from 2017 shows Shamim Syed revealing to family friend and attorney Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s most prominent advocate, that she has leukemia. Doctors had just caught it at stage one of the disease, and she insists that nobody tell Adnan. The next scene shows her traveling to visit Adnan in prison, while he, in a voice-over, compares getting a new trial to getting “approved for chemotherapy” for a terminal illness. He says he knows five people who’ve gotten new trials only to be convicted again, and he wonders at what point he’ll be like a cancer patient and just accept that it’s all over.

Syed turned down a plea deal

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Syed’s lawyers going over their appeals and battles against Thiru Vignarajah, a former prosecutor who somehow was still able to try the case as a private citizen while running for Baltimore City state’s attorney. Over the years, the state of Maryland informally floated potential ways for Syed to get out of prison, then finally settled on an offer in 2018: If Syed pleaded guilty, he’d serve an additional four years behind bars and then be released.

Syed’s lawyer, C. Justin Brown, speculated that the extra four years would mean Syed is freed after the attorney general goes through another election, as well as the fact that Lee’s family is still pushing for Syed to remain in jail forever. Syed pondered it, weighing the pros and cons of guaranteed freedom versus admitting to a crime he swears he didn’t commit and that he lied to everyone, including his family and Serial host Sarah Koenig.

The epilogue of the episode says that Syed declined the deal in November 2018, before his mother told him about her cancer. Following the episode, Chaudry tweeted, “The State offered Adnan a plea. But he refused to plead guilty. He couldn’t lie and say he committed a crime he didn’t. Does he regret not taking the plea now that Court of Appeals ruled against him? No. He told me to tell everyone he doesn’t regret it.”

Jay Wilds has a new story, again

Jay Wilds has changed his story about what happened the day of Lee’s murder multiple times at this point, from his first taped confessions to his trial testimony to a post-Serial interview with the Intercept. Director Amy Berg repeatedly tried to get Wilds to appear in the documentary to no avail, but he finally gave a new statement to her in January 2019.

This time, Wilds says that Syed showed him Lee’s body when they were at Wilds’s house, not in the Best Buy parking lot as he testified in the trial — that part was made up by the detectives. Wilds’s new story is that Syed, knowing Wilds was “the criminal element of Woodlawn,” asked him to procure ten pounds of marijuana and, after Wilds got it, used the drugs as blackmail to force Wilds to help dispose of Lee’s corpse. It’s unclear whether any law enforcement officials were made aware of this new story for the documentary, but it further muddies the credibility of the state’s star witness.

Lee’s body was buried much later than alleged

The prosecution’s timeline of the murder says that Lee’s body was buried in Leakin Park around 7:30 p.m., five hours after Syed strangled her to death. In the episode, private investigators hired by the defense speak with a forensic pathologist and former medical examiner who goes over the autopsy photos and report and comes up with a new timeline — Lee’s body wasn’t buried until between 10:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m.

In one autopsy photo, which is shown onscreen, Lee’s body shows evidence of lividity, the postmortem pooling of blood inside a corpse, surrounding a double-diamond-shaped mark on her shoulder. The pathologist says the only way that mark would have appeared is if Lee’s corpse was lying face down on an object with that specific shape for at least 8 to 12 hours. No object like that was found at the crime scene. If true, that means there’s no way Lee was killed in the afternoon and buried in the park so soon, refuting Wilds’s testimony and the prosecution’s case, further raising questions of where Lee was killed and where her body was kept before ending up in the woods.

There were also no bruises, marks, broken fingernails, or signs of any struggle on the body, leading the pathologist to conclude that the murder did not happen in the close quarters of Lee’s car, as the prosecution alleged. All of this together doesn’t prove Syed’s innocence, but it casts doubt on the alleged version of how the crime played out from start to finish.

There’s plenty of mysterious physical evidence (or a lack thereof)

The big reveal of the final episode got scooped by the Baltimore Sun last Thursday when the paper, after filing a public records act, revealed that Syed’s DNA was not found under Lee’s fingernails, on her body, or on other pieces of evidence collected at the crime scene. During Syed’s trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense requested that this be tested, likely because both sides feared that it would either exonerate or incriminate him. After Serial, the prosecution still declined to test it — Vignarajah allegedly said it was the defense’s responsibility to make the testing happen, so it wasn’t until the new defense team got it done in 2018 that anyone learned the results. This alone doesn’t exonerate Syed, but does show that the prosecution didn’t have any physical evidence tying him to the murder.

What the test did show was that there was DNA of an unidentified female on two wires that were found near Lee’s body. This DNA profile was not matched to any of the investigators or anyone whose DNA is in law enforcement databases. There was also a fingerprint, maybe two, on the rearview mirror of Lee’s car that also didn’t belong to Syed or the police, but was also never matched to anyone.

Syed’s lawyer Susan Simpson told the Crime Writers On podcast that the Baltimore Sun only learned about the DNA test recently, filing its public information request for it last Tuesday and getting the information in time to publish its article on Thursday. She says it’s a suspiciously quick amount of time for the attorney general’s office to respond to such a request — usually, it would take a month or two, suggesting that the state wanted this information out there before the episode aired to diminish the documentary’s overall impact on public opinion about the case.

Don and “Mr. S” should be considered suspects

There’s been much speculation about Don Clinedinst, Lee’s older boyfriend and co-worker at LensCrafters, and Alonzo Sellers, the man who discovered Lee’s body in Leakin Park and was known as “Mr. S” in Serial because he hadn’t been publicly named when the podcast aired.

First, Clinedinst was cleared by police because he had an alibi — working a shift at LensCrafters. The defense investigators point out that his alibi is thin because it comes from the manager of the store, who happens to be Clinedinst’s mother, and a digital time card, which either one of them allegedly could have manipulated after the fact. Another employee at the store recounts how Clinedinst, when telling his co-workers about Lee’s disappearance, had scratch marks and bandages on his forearms. Clinedinst said those injuries happened when he was doing work on his car, and detectives never questioned him in person about the case until three weeks after Lee went missing, so the speculation is that the wounds were healed or concealed by then.

As for Sellers, the suspicion surrounding him has centered on his previous conviction of indecent exposure and the oddness of the claim that he just happened to need to urinate in the spot where he found Lee’s body. It was very far into the woods from the road, and crime scene photos show that Lee’s body was barely visible in the leaf-strewn area, even up close. The new theories linking him to the murder are that the diamond-shaped mark left on Lee’s body might have come from her body being pressed down on equipment used in concrete construction work, which Sellers had previously done for a living. Also, he lived within five minutes’ walking distance of Woodlawn High School, so there’s a chance he might have seen her before. It’s all very thin, but once again, it could have been used as reasonable doubt at Syed’s trial.

According to the documentary, neither man’s DNA or prints were compared to what was found at the scene or in the car. Of course, no male DNA was found at the scene, and if either man was involved, how does Wilds fit into that narrative, especially given that other people claim he told them about the murder soon after it happened?

Lee’s car was likely moved well after her death

In an earlier episode of the documentary, Syed’s investigators go over the discovery of Lee’s car in a Baltimore lot. Wilds’s story is that he and Syed abandoned the car there where nobody would look for it, but residents say there’s no way a car would’ve lasted there for over six weeks without being towed or vandalized.

The other revelation is about the grass underneath the car, as it’s seen in police photos. A scientist attempted to grow and simulate the decaying of that same type of grass as it would have happened under the car in that time frame, but couldn’t make any conclusions based on that. However, he does point out that there are blades of grass on the car’s wheels and that — given the precipitation, freezing, and thawing that happened between the murder and the discovery — it’s likely that the car was only there for a week at the most. If true, it leads to the questions of who drove it there and why Wilds would lie about that.

The 7 Biggest Takeaways From The Case Against Adnan Syed