Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
When the first series of the Serial podcast was aired back in 2014, it became what can only be described as a sensation. As Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder documented the murder of 18 year old Hae Min Lee and the subsequent guilty verdict and life sentence for her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, listeners became obsessed by the case. Taking to Reddit and various other online forums, they turned into amateur sleuths, poring over maps and cell phone data and trying to track down the online presence of some of the main players. Amy Berg’s documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed, acts as both a follow-up and an antidote to that fervour.
Much of the criticism aimed at many true crime documentaries – and the Serial podcast in particular – surrounds the objectification of the victim. Berg attempts to counter this by giving over much of the first episode to the humanisation of Hae. She is given a ‘voice’ after her death by virtue of her diary entries, which are read aloud by a producer, and accompanied by animations of her falling in love with Adnan. Teenage doodles fill the screen, intercut with photos of Hae in her prom dress and her friends recounting their memories of her. Yet even this is marred somewhat by the knowledge that her family refused to take part in the podcast or the documentary. How, one wonders, do they feel at she and Adnan being portrayed as a Romeo and Juliet, complete with drawings of them walking hand in hand through enchanted forests to music by Lana del Ray, when they also think he is guilty of her murder? How do they feel about her teenage diaries being read out in what can only be described as an effort to exonerate Syed?
The documentary broadens out the podcast in various other ways, aiming, it seems, to fill in some of the blanks and to rectify some of the mistakes. It delves deeper into the complicated race relations of the time, and the trust – or, more accurately, the mistrust – that the Baltimore people had in the police and the legal system. It also looks at the effect the initial wave of publicity had on some of the witnesses, as they were made to relive that period in their lives, becoming public figures in a way they hadn’t envisaged.
Which is not to say that the four-part series isn’t firmly on board with much of the content of the podcast. Koenig was originally tipped off about the possible miscarriage of justice by Rabia Chaudrey, a long-term friend of the family and a lawyer who who has spent the years since the verdict trying to prove Adnan’s innocence. She is an executive producer of this documentary, and much of the screen-time involves her. It is through Chaudrey’s efforts that new lawyers have been appointed to take up Adnan’s case, and that prime witness Asia McClain – who can put Adnan in the school library at the time he was meant to be meeting and murdering Hae – realised she had been lied to by Adnan’s previous, incompetent legal team.
The main issue the documentary has, though, is the continued failure speak directly to Jay Wilds, the man whose evidence was so instrumental in Syed’s conviction. While the series comes firmly down on the side of police corruption – pointing out that the star witness for the prosecution made a deal to get off on other charges, and that the police coached him on what to say based on flawed cell tower data – Wilds’ lack of testimony here is the black hole of the entire enterprise. Furthermore, while the documentary team do manage to track down Don Clinedinst, Hae’s coworker and the man she left Adnan for, their meeting with him is filmed from afar and so brief as to be useless. Untested DNA evidence is dangled like a carrot to keep our interest, in the hope of it returning some answers, but it, too, comes to nothing. Ultimately, you feel short-changed.
Syed has been in prison for 20 years now, and last year, he turned down a plea deal, which meant that, were he to admit guilt, he would have been released in another four. Last month, he was denied a new trial. It’s unlikely that this documentary will add more weight to his case. Without any new revelations, public interest is bound to stall, and the truth about what actually happened to Hae slips further from our grip, lost in a mire of overwhelming detail and memories that get only more hazy as time goes by.
The Case Against Adnan Syed is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can watch it online legally in the UK with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.