It was the story that turned millions of listeners into armchair detectives back in 2014, making podcasts an indispensable part of modern life and launching countless true-crime series. Serial, which investigated the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland, and the subsequent conviction of her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, remains the most listened-to podcast in history, with over 175 million downloads. Journalist Sarah Koenig’s 12 riveting episodes left listeners firmly divided over whether Adnan was guilty of strangling Hae, or the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Five years on, a new documentary is set to reignite the debate. The Case Against Adnan Syed explores the sensational developments in the case since 2014, and takes a deep dive into facts and theories Serial didn’t cover. The series, on NOW TV from this week is directed by Amy Berg, an Oscar-nominated film-maker who is no stranger to miscarriage-of-justice cases. Her best-known film, West Of Memphis, examined the infamous 1993 case of the West Memphis Three, who were jailed for murder as teenagers, only to be freed 18 years later.
Amy’s latest project is executive-produced by lawyer Rabia Chaudry, a close friend of Adnan’s family. Her passionate belief in his innocence is well-known to anyone who’s heard Serial or Undisclosed, the podcast she began with two fellow lawyers in 2015 to dig deeper into the case from a legal perspective. at doesn’t mean, however, that Amy’s four-year investigation began from the same standpoint. ‘I felt unsettled at the end of Serial, but I didn’t have preconceptions about whether Adnan was guilty or innocent,’ says Amy. ‘Even though Rabia was involved, I was very clear that I wanted to investigate the whole case and if I found out something [incriminating] about Adnan, I wanted to include it in the film.’
Rabia, who has been battling for two decades to exonerate Adnan, now 37, was delighted to have such experienced eyes on the case. ‘I’d watched Amy’s work and had complete trust in turning everything over to her and saying, “Just do whatever you want with this,”’ she says. ‘I wasn’t privy to what she was finding out – as I’m watching I’m learning something new in each episode.’ Amy was determined to put Hae at the heart of a story that has often forgotten her. ‘I read Hae’s journals and I felt it was very important for me to make her into a whole person, not just the victim of a murder,’ she says. ‘She was this beautiful young woman who had this incredible life ahead of her. That’s the centre of the story – the case and the problems with it, that’s the true crime part, but Hae’s death is the tragedy.’
The documentary features many of Hae’s friends and classmates, as well as Adnan’ family, bringing the story to vivid life. Hae’s family, who believe Adnan’s guilt, declined to participate. It also probes the testimony of Jay Wilds, who claimed he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body, and promises to explore possible reasons for his shifting version of events. ‘We have a few big “wow” moments and a lot of new information,’ says Amy.
The documentary also promises to delve into Adnan’s appeals process since 2014: in 2016, his conviction was overturned following the discovery that evidence placing Adnan’s mobile phone in the park where Hae’s body was buried was unreliable, and that a possible alibi witness for Adnan was never called by his lawyer. Then, in a dramatic twist last month, an appeals court reinstated his conviction, leaving Adnan in prison. ‘It was devastating,’ says Rabia. ‘But there are plenty of legal options left, and we will pursue every single one.’ Amy says she believes the police were lazy in honing in on Adnan, a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, to the exclusion of other suspects. ‘Racism definitely played into it,’ she says. ‘It makes me sick to my stomach that a person could have their whole life taken away [on that basis].’
The explosion in true-crime podcasts and programmes such as Making A Murderer has led to accusations that victims are being exploited for entertainment, but Amy believes that, on balance, they have a positive impact. ‘Storytellers can go out there and bring light to things that are getting lost.’ Several, including The Teacher’s Pet, the podcast about a missing Australian woman, have resulted in major pieces of new evidence coming to light. And, as Rabia points out, trying to discover the truth of contentious cases isn’t just about those accused of crimes; it’s also about honouring victims. ‘I’ve always said that Hae deserves justice, too.’
‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’ is on NOW TV from 1 April; the box-set can be streamed with the contract-free Entertainment Pass, £7.99