In the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, an NBC Dateline producer says, “Right now murder is hot.” I’m not sure that this woman knows what “hot” means, because on the scale of things that are incredibly un-hot, murder falls somewhere between peach fuzz mustaches and amateur taxidermists. Murder trials are “in” right now, though. Just look at the success of Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx.
From the beginning of Serial, Adnan Syed’s story has really resonated with me. Maybe it’s because I so value my freedom. Just kidding. It’s obviously because I have a soft spot for first-generation Americans (re: every boyfriend I’ve ever had). That’s probably why it has been so hard for me to adjust to season 2 of Serial. I’m not as invested in Bowe Bergdahl’s case. I miss the ole Woodlawn crew.
But the gang got back together for Adnan’s hearing. It’s like a Real Housewives reunion. Hey, since Sarah Koenig didn’t stick around for the end of the trial, maybe Andy Cohen can host it.
I am baffled when people tell me they don’t listen to Serial. Do you enjoy being left out of daily conversation? Is it fun not understanding the news? I don’t know who’s running for president but I can tell you every piece of evidence in the state’s case against Adnan Syed. It’s called priorities. Okay, I know that one podcast (a Peabody Award-winning podcast, mind you) isn’t everyone’s top priority, but once SNL makes a parody of something, that’s usually a telltale sign that you should know about it.
In case anyone has no idea what I’m talking about, I am going to attempt to recap Serial season 1. Summarizing the murder of Hae Min Lee and the state’s case against Adnan Syed in less than 500 characters is a miscarriage of justice almost as great as that of the Baltimore police in 1999…but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Hae Min Lee, a senior in the magnet program at Woodlawn High, disappeared on January 13, 1999. On February 9, her body was found in Leakin Park, pronounced “Lincoln Park” by most Baltimoreans. Hae’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested on February 28. On February 25, 2000, Adnan was found guilty first degree murder. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of Jay Wilds, a friend of Adnan who claimed to help him bury Hae’s body.
If you feel caught up now, you are completely mistaken. Listen to Serial season 1, Undisclosed, and Sarah Koenig’s recaps of days 1-3 of Adnan’s hearing–in that order–and then you can join the conversation. You’re only 14 months late.
Last week, Adnan Syed was back in court. The defense is arguing that Adnan received ineffective assistance, namely Cristina Gutierrez’s failure to contact Asia McClain. As Sarah Koenig says in Episode 1:
[…] There are conceivable strategic reasons why Christina Gutierrez might not have wanted to put Asia McClain on the stand. But what is inconceivable […] is to not ever contact Asia McClain, to never make the call, never check it out, never find out if her story helps or hurts your case. That makes no sense whatsoever. That is not a strategy. That is a screw-up.
There also might have been a Brady violation, but I’ll touch on that later. This hearing will determine whether or not Adnan gets a new trial. I don’t know much about post-conviction proceedings (imagine that), but according to Sarah Koenig, if the judge rules that Adnan should get a new trial, the state will probably appeal his case. If the judge rules that Adnan shouldn’t get a new trial, the case goes back to the Court of Special Appeals.
Trying to follow this hearing from my office was maddening. There were two ways to get updates. One was through Periscope, a live streaming app. The idea is that you can watch interviews in real-time during the court’s recesses. The problem is that you can’t really put a client on hold to see Susan Simpson fumble through her court notes. The other option was to follow Seema Iyer’s updates on Twitter. Reading Seema Iyer’s tweets is like reading texts from my superintendent. They are borderline illegible.
Texts from Danny:
“C0MINGT0FIXB0ILER”. One word. No spaces. No punctuation. No letter O’s.
“In goin bk in.” No need to abbreviate so much, Seema. You aren’t pushing your 140 character limit. Also, “Salad” Chaudry…I’m pretty sure his name is Saad, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.
I was hoping Rabia Chaudry could keep us in the loop, but she was sequestered on day 1. Luckily, Sarah Koenig made daily podcasts recapping the first 3 days of the hearing, and the Undisclosed crew was there for the whole thing.
In the hearing, Adnan’s attorney argued that Cristina Gutierrez wasn’t at her best when she was defending him. Gutierrez was known as a tough, spirited lawyer who knew what she was doing. As her health declined, however, she lost some of her spunk. Witnesses say she tired easily during trials and that she had to eat every hour. It’s sort of like when I saw Earth, Wind & Fire in concert circa 1999 and they took a lot of “instrumental breaks.” (Also in Baltimore, incidentally.) They just weren’t what they used to be, and neither was Gutierrez.
Apparently Asia McClain is the rockstar we all imagined she would be. There has been a lot of talk about this girl, but she didn’t let the rumors get to her. Koenig says Asia was tall, striking, and wore heels and bright lipstick…in spite of being FIVE MONTHS PREGNANT.
She knows she saw Adnan in the public library on January 13, 1999, and she isn’t going to let the state’s accusations disprove that.
(Side note: I always imagine Asia McClain as a morph between Olivia Pope and Beyoncé. Like Beyoncé with Olivia Pope’s wardrobe. What is wrong with me?)
Even when the prosecution tried to poke holes in Asia’s story by discrediting her memory, she held her ground. Asia had an elaborate story about the snow storm that day. The problem is it didn’t snow. Close, but snow cigar. (Okay, that was a bad one). Asia totally blew off this line of questioning, like, “So what? There was bad weather. Close enough.” Whatever, Thiru Vignarajah. Yes, the prosecutor’s name is Deputy Attorney General Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah. It’s a mouthful. Adnan’s attorney is named Justin Brown, though, so we got off easy with that one.
Thiru also accused Asia and/or Adnan of forging the typed letter that Asia allegedly sent Adnan in prison. The letter is dated March 2, but the state argues that it was written at a later date. They’re basing this on information Asia included in the letter, like that Hae’s body was found in Leakin Park. How could she possibly know this by March 2? Uh, only because this detail was divulged by every news outlet in Baltimore County that week.
There are also these fishy detective’s notes saying that one of Adnan’s classmates remembers Adnan asking a couple of their friends to write a letter to him in jail with a false alibi. I don’t know what to say to this. High schoolers lie? Rumors spread quickly? Detectives don’t always jot down witnesses’ accounts word-for-word? The Baltimore police haven’t played by the rules up to this point, so why should this be any different?
Now, for the juiciest part of the whole hearing–the cell phone records. With Adnan’s cell phone records, AT&T sent the prosecution a disclaimer that said the records could not be used to track the location of incoming calls. The prosecution failed to share this disclaimer with anyone involved in the case. After learning this, the cell phone analyst from the original trial wrote an affidavit saying that he might not have testified the way he did if this information had been disclosed to him. This constitutes the aforementioned Brady violation.
This is huge. I want to get this document blown up and made into a poster for my wall. I’m about to start a movement for everyone to set this as their profile picture on Facebook. It’s going to be one of my “moments” on Tinder. That’s how important this is.
The state’s entire timeline–aka Jay Wilds’s testimony–is corroborated by “pings” to cell towers in the areas that Adnan supposedly was on January 13, 1999. It’s honestly the only piece of “evidence” they had, besides the word of Jay–who, by the way, was a twentysomething drug dealer who didn’t have a car or cell phone and hung around with high schoolers–so there’s that.
I’m about to veer off the known facts for a second and speculate that the cell tower “evidence” played an even more important role in Adnan’s fate than just the trial. I know the Baltimore police were corrupt (it’s called The Wire), but I don’t think they were, like, evil. I doubt they just wanted to ruin some 17-year-old guy’s life for no reason. No, they probably believed Adnan killed Hae and were determined to prove it, regardless of the evidence, or lack there of. They touch on this in Undisclosed, but why were the Baltimore police so sure that Adnan was guilty? Because of an anonymous call they received in February 1999? Doubtful. Hae’s body was found in Leakin Park. The ex-boyfriend is an obvious suspect. I think they checked Adnan’s cell phone records, saw the Leakin Park “ping” that afternoon, put two and two together, and rolled with it. The problems with this are 1. you’re supposed to base your case off of the evidence, not plant the evidence based off of your case, and 2. we now know that the cell phone records don’t prove Adnan’s whereabouts.
The state threw around a few theories as to why Cristina Gutierrez didn’t contact Asia McClain, like maybe she was a “gossipy” witness, or maybe Adnan gave her a different alibi to check, or maybe she did contact Asia and Rabia Chaudry somehow removed all documentation of this from the evidence. They also went into a strange line of questioning with a security guard from the library. Thiru showed him a photo of Adnan Syed and asked, “Did you see this man in the library on January 13, 1999?” The security guard doesn’t remember seeing him. Obviously he doesn’t remember seeing him. IT WAS 17 YEARS AGO. If the state thinks that THIS supports their theory that Adnan wasn’t in the library that afternoon, their case is even weaker than I thought. I can only imagine Rabia was laughing outside the courtroom.
A former Baltimore City cop spoke on Undisclosed earlier this week. He served on the police force in Baltimore for 11 years, but has since become an activist against police corruption. He thinks it’s possible that the police didn’t put enough thought into this case because it revolved around minorities. Maybe the police weren’t concerned about getting justice for Hae because she was a Korean immigrant. And the second they saw an opportunity to blame the whole thing on the Muslim kid, they made Adnan their prime suspect. This is what we all wondered from the beginning, but hoped wasn’t true. Adnan Syed’s name has become another hashtag for justice, and he has been in jail for so long that he probably doesn’t know what a hashtag is. It will be a few weeks before the court rules on Adnan’s hearing, but it looks like there might finally be justice for both Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee.