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Review: HBO's 'The Case Against Adnan Syed' Convinces Us Of His Guilt By Trying To Do the Opposite

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 20, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 20, 2019 |


There is something very paradoxical about HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, which doesn’t even try to make a case against Adnan Syed. Far from the strong work that Sarah Koenig did with the Serial podcast, Amy Berg’s four-part documentary seems to have a very clear agenda, which is to poke holes in the case against Adnan and create a cloud of confusion. It very much operates like Making a Murderer has for Steven Avery — it’s less interested in getting to the truth and more interested in a one-sided perspective that tries to muddy the waters.

That’s where the paradox comes in, because the more the doc series tries to confuse the case, the more it demands the viewer retreat into the simple, underlying theory of the case: Adnan Syed met Hae Min Lee after school on January 13th, asked for a ride he didn’t need, strangled her, put her in the trunk of her own car, and recruited Jay Wilds to help him dispose of the body in Leakin Park. Cell phone records, Jay Wilds’ testimony, and that of Jen Pusateri support the prosecution’s case.

Now, there are a lot of ways to poke holes in the inconsistent testimony of Jay Wilds — the key to Adnan Syed’s conviction — and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he was coached, that he catered his testimony to the demands of the police, and that he had a huge incentive to testify against Syed, namely that it allowed him to plead out his own accessory after the fact deal. But no matter how you look at it, Jay was there. Jay knew where Hae Min Lee’s car was hidden. Jay and Adnan were seen together by other witnesses on the day of the murder. Jay was there when the body was buried (and he either helped or didn’t, depending on which version of his story you believe), so either Jay — who had zero motive to do so — killed Hae Min on his own on the very day that he had Adnan’s cell phone and was seen with Adnan, or he helped Adnan bury the body. Or, alternatively, the police framed Adnan for the murder, recruited Jay and Jenn, and cooked up this entire conspiracy, which has somehow withstood two decades of scrutiny (there’s no evidence of this, only vague innuendo).

Now, you can get into why the evidence against Adnan Syed — given all the lies and inconsistencies — was not strong enough to withstand a ‘beyond the reasonable doubt’ standard, and that would be a good argument to make. Sarah Koenig convincingly made it on Serial. A white kid with a better, more competent attorney would not be sitting in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee right now. A more equitable justice system and a jury without biases against people of color would never have convicted Adnan Syed based on the evidence given.

That particular focus, however, had already been deftly explored in Serial, so all The Case Against Adnan Syed is left with is an embarrassing, incoherent, confusing and (quite frankly) boring attempt to prove that Adnan Syed didn’t murder Hae Min Lee. It is a mess of half-formed ideas, meandering investigations, and rudderless storytelling that also presupposes anyone watching the documentary has already listened to Serial and that it is still fresh in our minds. The doc series desperately needs a reliable narrator like Sarah Koenig to make sense of what it is trying to tell us, because otherwise, The Case Against Adnan Syed just throws a bunch of ideas at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. The closest the documentary has to that is Rabia Chaudry offering her two cents in every other scene (I like Chaudry, and I appreciate her dedication to the case, but she’s hardly impartial).

There’s an entire section in the second episode that typifies The Case Against Adnan Syed as a whole: Two investigators, clearly compensated to find exculpatory evidence, spend a great deal of time investigating the grass underneath the car where Hae Min Lee’s car was parked twenty years ago. They want to find out, based on a photo of the car from two decades ago, whether the health of the grass underneath the car suggests that it was moved there days or weeks after Hae Min was murdered, or if — as Jay testified — they parked it there after burying Hae Min Lee’s body. They bring in an expert on grass, who explains what kind of grass it is, and who takes the grass back to his lab to reproduce what it might look like in the same conditions. They investigate to find out whether any new grass has been added in over the last 20 years, and they even ask a neighbor if she remembers the car in the lot from 20 years ago. It’s nitpicky as hell, and they’re trying to unravel an entire murder investigation based on a grass sample. The kicker, however, is that they never provide an alternative scenario. OK, what if the car was moved there later than what was testified by Jay? What does that mean? Likewise, there’s a lot of talk about the lividity of Hae Min’s body, but that conversation does not explain away why Jay and Adnan were seen together the day of Hae Min’s murder, or how Jay knew of the whereabouts of Hae Min’s car. The only explanation that Rabia can offer for that is, “Well, the real killer must have told Jay.”

OK, if it wasn’t Adnan, and it wasn’t Jay, who was the real killer? *crickets*

Again, I am not disputing that the case against Adnan was shaky, but when a documentary with an agenda starts grasping at straws and throwing out wild nonsensical innuendos, viewers have a tendency to revert to the mean, so to speak. If you walked into a gym and saw a basketball go through a hoop, would you assume that the guy standing underneath the basket made the shot? Or that a guy outside the gym kicked the basketball through the gym doors, bounced it off a wall, and over the backboard at just the right angle to go into the net? Also, here’s some grass samples to help you decide. That’s the case that The Case Against Adnan Syed tries to make, and it not only hardens my previously soft belief that Adnan did it, but it pisses me off by insulting our intelligence, thinking it can show us a bunch of shiny pennies to distract us from the $100 bill sitting right in front of our faces.

Header Image Source: HBO