If you listened to the first season of “Serial,” you’ve probably got a strong opinion about Adnan Syed. The wildly popular 2014 podcast examined the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Syed. His trial hinged not on physical evidence, but on the inconsistent testimony of Jay Wilds, a classmate who said he helped Syed bury Lee’s body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, and corroborating cellphone records, which Syed’s current lawyers say are unreliable.
Listeners were left with more questions than answers.
“The Case Against Adnan Syed,” HBO’s docuseries, picks up where the podcast left off. Armed with new evidence and interviews with Lee and Syed’s family and friends, including Asia McClain — a former classmate who’s long claimed she spoke with Syed the day of Lee’s disappearance, but was never called to testify — director Amy Berg focuses on whether Syed, who’s spent the last 20 years in jail serving out a life sentence, was given a fair trial.
“Strong women helped exonerate and solve cases across the country and there have been great films and docs that highlight these women, I wanted to add to that.” And, of course, there would be no case against Adnan Syed if it weren’t for Hae Min Lee’s death. Berg wanted to highlight Lee, whose diaries offer a closer look at who she was.
“There was a passionate and young woman with dreams in those pages and she had so much life to live for,” Berg writes.
Ahead of the HBO docuseries’s finale this Sunday, The Lily spoke with Berg, McClain, and attorney Susan Simpson — a “Serial” junkie who became part of Syed’s legal team after poking holes in the prosecution’s case via her blog — about the case, the legal system’s shortcomings and their hope for Syed now that his chances of a retrial have all but disappeared.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Berg is the acclaimed filmmaker behind the 2012 documentary “West of Memphis” about the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenage boys who spent two decades in jail for murder despite a lack of DNA evidence connecting them to the crime.
The Lily: You said you couldn’t get “Serial” out of your head after listening. What really stuck out to you?
Amy Berg: There was enough doubt for me to want to give this a real close look, and I was very clear with the producers that if I found out anything about Adnan being involved with [the murder], I wanted to go down that road as well.
TL: Some think the documentary is pro-Syed.
AB: We were very objective. We get a little bit closer to the truth in Episode 4. Objectivity is about the facts, and the way to discern what the state proved was to follow the case they presented in the trial. The conviction can’t just rely on Jay’s conflicting statements.
TL: Do you see similarities between Syed’s case and case of the West Memphis Three?
AB: In both cases, there’s not a lot of corroboration beyond people’s statements and there’s no forensic evidence connecting the convicted with the crimes. When I finished making “West of Memphis” I remember thinking, I don’t think I can ever do this again. It was so painful going up against the state of Arkansas, challenging them on the facts and trying to get information out of those who should have the information. It’s kind of scary to feel that people might not be able to fight for themselves in a situation where they may not have committed a crime.
TL: The documentary shows just how much Syed and Lee’s friends, family and those who live in their town are still dealing with the aftermath of the crime. What is it like to approach a documentary knowing that your work could cause more harm and pain for these people?
AB: Meeting up with Adnan’s friends and family and Hae’s family friend was very telling. You can still feel their pain: it’s palpable. Asking people to participate in a retelling of the story stirs up a lot of memories and emotions. This becomes the unfortunate part of trying to find the truth.
TL: You were able to speak to Syed throughout this process. What do you think people should know about him?
AB: Adnan is very patient. He believes the process will work in due time but he’s not expecting it to happen quickly.
TL: You’ve said you don’t think Syed will get another trial, and that this documentary might be his trial in a sense.
AB: The state continues to fight granting him a new trial, so it’s hard to have hope. Why are they so set on this fight when there is so much doubt?
Simpson is a Washington, D.C. attorney and co-host of the podcast “Undisclosed,” which investigates wrongful convictions. Early on, she questioned the prosecution’s use of cellphone records as evidence in Syed’s case.
The Lily: With this docuseries, how are you pushing Syed’s case forward beyond “Serial”?
Susan Simpson: “Serial” is part of the history of this case, and any documentary covering this case has to cover “Serial,” but there are definitely a lot of gaps in the podcast that need filling in. If there is a distinction between Amy’s show and “Serial,” it’s that “Serial” quickly fell into, was it Adnan or was it Jay [Wilds]? That was never the question at all.
TL: In your opinion, what is the question of this case?
SS: The question of “The Case Against Adnan Syed” is how that case came to be. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out — how the prosecution managed to get the pieces together for Adnan’s trial, because those pieces never added up right. They never formed a cohesive whole.
TL: The docuseries makes the case that there’s evidence Syed was given an unfair trial and, whether he’s guilty or not, he should be given a retrial.
SS: It’s a hard concept to get across to people emotionally, but that’s what we call a wrongful conviction. I do believe Adnan is innocent; I’m very convinced of that from years of looking at the case, because I cannot find a way to add the facts up to prove he’s guilty. But legally, that doesn’t matter. The documentary does have some compelling evidence of Adnan’s innocence — it shows where the case is flawed, but it’s not going to help his case currently.
TL: What does Syed’s case say about the legal system in America?
SS: Witnesses can go into court, and whether they’re intentionally lying or have no intention of lying at all, they can end up telling a story that is not based in reality.
TL: What is your hope for Adnan now that Maryland’s highest court reinstated his conviction, reversing a ruling from a lower court in favor of granting him a new trial?
SS: For me, the case is not over. There are so many new directions that it has to go in and explore. I don’t know what the next steps are. There will be next steps, that’s not a question, but the path we thought we are on is no longer the path we’re on.
TL: That seems like the hardest part of working on cases like this: the setbacks.
SS: It’s kind of brutal, to be honest. You don’t really get used to it, you just have to deal with it. It sucks, it does, but if you don’t go into this stuff knowing that you’re going to get your a-- kicked a little bit and then keep on going, you’ll never get anywhere.
McClain, who went to high school with Syed and Lee, says she spoke with Syed the day Lee disappeared but never got a chance to testify on his behalf. She hopes appearing in the documentary will help vindicate Syed.
The Lily: This series finally gives Hae Min Lee a voice. Having known her, what does that mean to you?
Asia McClain: We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Hae, unfortunately.
I think that it was extremely important to bring life to not only Hae but her relationships within the community. It’s good that [Berg’s] exposing new information and looking at old evidence a little more closely. Honestly, I don’t think the police did a very good job with the information that they had.
TL: What have you learned from this case?
AM: What happened to Adnan could have happened to any one of us. I think about what would have happened if the police received an anonymous tip about me or one of my other friends — would we be sitting in jail for 20 years? It’s a scary thought. I think that was a part of why I decided to come forward. If someone was with me during the very time that the state argued that I was responsible for a murder, I would want that person to speak up, defend me and be my alibi.
TL: The documentary shows how the prosecution sought to discredit you and your story. Was it hard not to second-guess yourself?
AM: Honestly, it’s not hard because there’s not much to tell. Typically, when people are lying they have 50 million different details, you know? The truth is simple, the truth is easy. I never signed up to be this fantastic alibi; it’s a simple situation. Adnan and I talked for about 20 minutes in the school library on the day Lee disappeared. When no one reached out to me [to testify at Syed’s trial], that only solidified the idea in my head that 20 minutes couldn’t be that important.
TL: You said you haven’t had any contact with Syed since that day in the library, but you would like to talk with him. What would you say?
AM: It’s weird because I don’t know him. I knew who he was, but I don’t know him as a grown man. It’s weird to feel like you have a kinship with someone because of shared adversity. I just want to ask, where was he at mentally when he heard [his first lawyer] Cristina Gutierrez was disbarred? Where was he at when he heard [state prosecutor] Kevin Urick testify that I recanted my story in 2010? Where was he in his head when he found out “Serial” went viral? What does he think about my involvement in this case? Because when Sarah [Koenig] told him that she reached out to me in “Serial,” you can hear him go silent, and I want to know what was in that silence. Was it hope?