Editors: For the Love of God, Stop Publishing Stories about Adnan Syed
People who have no business writing about a complex legal case have gotten very busy writing about a complex legal case.
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, Adnan Syed - the subject of the first season of Serial - was released from prison following vacatur of his conviction. Here’s what I said:
I want to sort of hit out at media outlets here, because many have said that Syed will face a new trial. That is highly unlikely, to the point of almost being impossible. Prosecutors are vacating his conviction and basically torching their own work. They destroyed the original case against Syed and heavily implied that they think someone else did it. And they are letting Syed go free, without posting bail. While it is possible that they will charge him again, it is also possible that the squirrel in my backyard will speak Spanish to me in the next two weeks (Hola Guillermo!). In other words, Adnan is going home.
I think most people with lots of experience in law would come to the same conclusion. Basically, when a prosecutor says all of their previous work was questionable, they are not going to try to redo a bunch of that work to secure a new conviction.
The impression from some people was that this was the result of a bunch of “Wine Moms” or “liberal cat women” who got a little too carried away with their true crime podcasts and have now let a murderer back onto the streets. I really want to push back on that. In reality, Syed’s case has been up, down, backwards, forwards, and through Maryland’s court system for two decades. It wasn’t just a podcast that found a sympathetic audience, but there is ample evidence that judges and other prosecutors were convinced by Syed’s arguments. To wit: This is not even the first time Syed has had his conviction overturned.
His original conviction was vacated a few years ago, but prosecutors fought against it and eventually won in Maryland’s Court of Appeals (and even that was a split decision, 4-3). So, it is important to note that the belief that Syed is innocent isn’t something that magically emerges from a podcast obsession; it is a belief that has been endorsed by judges, attorneys, and public officials in and outside of Maryland’s court system. However, the thread holding Syed’s conviction together basically begins with the refusal of former prosecutors to admit they got anything wrong.
That last part is key, because prosecutors basically have every advantage when it comes to defending their past convictions in court, and judges tend to defer to them even when lots of the evidence used in a conviction becomes problematic (as was the case with Syed). For them to give up when they could simply continue to uphold Syed’s conviction and (this is important) let him go free, tells basically every legal expert that they not only have doubts about the “integrity” about their past conviction, but that they also suspect Syed might be innocent.
That knowledge is key when it comes to writing about Syed’s case. Instead of considering that (or maybe even talking to a lawyer), people went Leeroy Jenkins. Here is a piece from Unherd:
Despite all the supposed doubts raised by Serial, HBO, and now Judge Melissa Phinn, Syed’s conviction was solid and just. An accomplice [named Jay Wilds] testified at trial that he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body in the public park where it was discovered, and this testimony was corroborated by cell tower evidence showing Syed’s phone in the park on the night in question.
This piece is a little less egregious, mostly because it is short and unconvincing. The author - Park MacDougald - basically feels like Syed is guilty and decided to write about it, without providing any support or evidence to back up his feeling. It’s not as bad as this one, for instance, by Helen Andrews. To give some background on Andrews: She sort of gets paid to be odious and terrible, but that itself shouldn’t take away from the fact that she is basically the world’s largest single-celled organism. Her piece is particularly brain-dead:
This jubilation must be hard for Hae Min Lee’s family to watch. I find it not very pleasant myself. Adnan’s trial was fair. The evidence was damning. Nothing that his defenders have uncovered, either in the original podcast or in this most recent motion to vacate the conviction, undermines the prosecution’s overwhelming case. The key witness was Jay Wilds, who says Adnan came to him the day of the murder, showed him the body, and convinced him to help bury it in Leakin Park. Jay was Adnan’s weed dealer, which presumably is why Adnan chose him as an accomplice, thinking he would be less likely to go to the cops and less credible if he did so. But the jury didn’t just take Jay’s word for it. […] Cell phone location records corroborated Jay’s timeline, which Jay would not have known in advance when he first told his story.
I want to touch on something that is argued by both authors but happens to be explicitly false. Andrews and MacDougald try to make the same point: That there was a “key witness” providing testimony that was “corroborated” by other evidence, namely cell phone tower data and other witness testimony.
As Andrews points out, that witness is Jay Wilds, who - to put it mildly - has major credibility issues. But even leaving that aside, it is important to note that his testimony was, in fact, not corroborated by cell phone tower data and law enforcement made that clear under oath. When Wilds first went to prosecutors, he gave them a timeline of how the night went, and it was contradicted by the cell phone tower data. Wilds’s story about that night has changed multiple times, both before the trial and after, but the police officers who interviewed him stated under oath that his timeline and the State’s did not match up. Without Wilds confirming the State’s “theory” of the case, they basically had to admit that they didn’t have one. It wasn’t until they got a map out of the cell phone tower data and showed it to Jay that he changed his tune.
Prosecutors highlight this in their motion to vacate and specifically note that a key piece of evidence against Syed - how Wilds knew where victim’s car was - came both after Wilds told detectives a bunch of false information and while the tape recorder was magically turned off, implying that Wilds may not have been the original source of this information.
Another thing that both Andrews and MacDougald leave out is that the detective who interviewed Wilds, William Ritz, had the conviction in another case he worked on overturned because he fabricated evidence. Whoopsie!
This is pretty basic information about the case. In fact, the cell phone tower data has been a major reason for Syed’s appeals, to varying levels of success. The original expert who testified in Syed’s trial has since recanted his testimony and stated that he was unaware that the cell phone tower data was deemed “unreliable” by its own carrier, AT&T. Had he known this, he says he would have never testified, and subsequently offered an apology to Syed’s family.
I think this is where a lot of people get confused. On Serial, the cell phone tower data was presented as iffy and not exact, but still somewhat valid. In the years since, it - along with testimony from an alibi for Syed - has been the subject of many appeals. Basically, the cell phone tower data isn’t just iffy, but completely inaccurate. It is not even GPS data and is instead only meant for billing purposes. At the time, the State argued that a call Syed received while he was supposedly burying the body in Leakin Park showed that he was actually there, since it “pinged” the closest tower. New (and pretty technical) evidence has shown that to be basically impossible. Experts have since said that the cell tower data could show that Syed was “not in Saudi Arabia,” but not much else.
The State basically said as much in their motion to vacate the conviction. In 1999, when this crime occurred, cell phone tower data was still a pretty new concept, and law enforcement often interpreted it incorrectly. However, in Syed’s case, it does seem that they were aware of its unreliability and hid it from the defense anyway (there was a cover sheet on the cell phone tower printout that said it was not reliable for incoming calls and that wasn’t disclosed to Adnan’s attorneys).
The two pieces from Andrews and MacDougald aren’t just poor because they get basic facts wrong. Andrews, for example, continues to state that Wilds’s testimony was supported by other witnesses without noting that major witnesses for the State have since said there was no way that their original testimony was correct.
But leave aside the small stuff, or the “rabbit holes,” as Andrews calls them. You can summarize the primary error in both pieces with a simple sentence from Andrews:
One can listen to every episode of Serial and never hear an alternate theory of the case that would explain why Jay knew where the car was, why he would lie so elaborately, or who the real killer was.
The reality here is that Serial only scratches the surface of what’s wrong with Syed’s conviction, and if you want to get the full picture, you have to dig a little deeper. Reading Andrews and MacDougald’s pieces makes it pretty obvious that all they did was listen to Serial when it came out (if that).
It is normal for a convicted felon to appeal multiple times to both State and Federal courts in order to win some small victories. But Syed has won some big ones, with Courts agreeing that much of the evidence that was used in his trial was problematic. It is not unreasonable to think he is innocent, based on that alone. Ivan Bates, who will replace Marilyn Mosby in the Baltimore State Attorney’s office, has openly stated that he does not think Syed’s conviction was correct. Given that, I think it’s safe to assume that the motion to vacate was coming sooner or later.
The State of Maryland has been negotiating with Syed behind the scenes for some time. In 2018, they basically asked for Syed to plead guilty in exchange for his release. He has openly stated in interviews that he considered doing so because spending the rest of his life in prison would suck, but he ultimately decided not to because he would just be “trading” one prison for another: Admitting to a crime that he did not commit.
The trajectory of all of this basically tells me that the State and Baltimore’s prosecutors have been slowly losing confidence in this conviction for some time. To read between the lines: Prosecutors have said that they did some DNA testing which was requested by Syed’s attorneys (weird thing to do if you suspect your client is guilty, but whatever!). In a footnote in their motion to vacate, prosecutors said that they got some results back in August, but look closely:
That’s my emphasis in the screenshot, but it’s super important. Baltimore prosecutors have basically said that they did additional DNA testing and got some results back on August 18, 2022, but they are not disclosing anything because of an ongoing investigation. In the same motion, they highlight two additional suspects who they think might have committed the crime. Then, they decide to release Syed and let him go home about a month later.
While they are still doing some additional DNA testing, the fact that they got some results back and are letting Syed go home is a tell. They must be pretty confident that any additional DNA results that produce anything useable will not point to Syed and instead to an alternative suspect. My guess is that their most recent results showed something, and that the judge presiding over Syed’s release saw it:
In camera means that the judge looked at it out of the view of the public, and was convinced by it. In other words, the judge didn’t just take prosecutors’ word for it; she saw something that she found compelling and granted the motion (although she was probably always going to go with what prosecutors asked).
While the prosecutors don’t name the two alternative suspects in their filing, Sarah Koenig - the host of Serial - says that she knows them. I know who they are too, and although one of the suspects will be familiar to Serial audiences, the other one probably isn’t. In keeping with good journalistic practices, I’m not going to name who they are, but it’s possible to do some digging on your own. All in all, they are a pretty vile person and, to put it in layman’s terms, a bitch. So, let’s uphold the patriarchy, use the universal “he,” and call this person, “Mr. Bitch,” or, “Mr. B.,” for short.
There are rumors that Mr. B is the major suspect that prosecutors have in mind, and that they are planning to bring charges against him. We will probably know more about that soon. Mr. B has a long history of abusive behavior and is currently in prison. It is sometimes hard to make out from the motion to vacate, but it sounds like Mr. B is the one who wrote a note that contained threats, and that he had attacked women in the same way the murder occurred in this case. He was also somewhat well-known in the community and - get this - was also represented by Syed’s original attorney, which is a major red flag.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the actual person who was murdered here, Hae Min Lee, and remind everyone that this case is ultimately about her. No matter what you think about Syed’s guilt - I, like most normal people, have gone back and forth over time! - it is truly unfair that her family has had to endure this roller coaster. In a recent filing, Lee’s family asked for a pause in proceedings so they can see the underlying evidence:
“The Lee family is not seeking, through this motion or through the appeal, to impact Mr. Syed’s release from custody,” the family’s attorney Steve Kelly told the Sun in a statement. “If the wrong person has been behind bars for 23 years, the Lee family and the rest of the world want to understand what new evidence has led to that conclusion.”
That is well stated and more than fair. And it is the perfect reason to return to the crux of this post: If you have not given this case the appropriate level of attention, then you should not write about it just for clicks. Leave Syed out of it, or your hatred of the media, or your bias against “liberal cat women” (and also maybe don’t be a misogynist?). A girl was murdered and stolen from her family when she was only 18. Let prosecutors do their work.
It is flying under the radar, but there is a major civil war happening in Ethiopia. The entire conflict is complicated, but this New Yorker piece on it (with a heavy focus on Ethiopia’s current leader) is just incredible reporting.
Timothy Snyder games out how the Ukraine War ends.
I wish I had another Jackal to write about Herschel Walker, but it almost gets me too depressed. My heart sank reading that Christians who support Walker are unfazed by him paying for an abortion. It sank for really two reasons: First for the obvious reason, but second (and more significantly) because of my utter lack of surprise.
The Jackal is off next week for Indigenous Peoples’ Day (as it is officially called here in Denver!). See you all on October 21st with a lot of talk about the midterms.