‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’ Continues the Fight Started by ‘Serial’

Can the HBO Documentary shed new light on the cold case, or only feed our true crime obsession?
The Case Against Adnan Syed
HBO Films
By  · Published on February 12th, 2019

Five years ago, the Serial podcast took over my life. I was not alone in this. Baltimore Sun investigative reporter and This American Life producer Sarah Koenig seemingly captured the attention of all pop culture obsessives. Her series not only details the 1999 murder of Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee and the eventual conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, but it also explores the potential horrors caused by a befuddled and desperate legal system. At the conclusion of those 12 episodes, I could not say whether Syed was innocent or guilty, but I was firmly convinced that there was enough confusion around the evidence that would make it impossible to land on a guilty verdict.

Of course, listening to a podcast and sitting on a jury are two absolutely different kinds of experiences. That being said, the result of Koenig’s investigation cast serious doubt in a lot of hearts and minds. In March of last year, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned Syed’s conviction due to the lackluster legal counsel he received during the trial and granted him a new hearing. That action was naturally appealed by the state, and Syed is currently awaiting a decision from a seven-judge panel as to what will happen next.

Now, West of Memphis filmmaker Amy Berg is set to unleash her own investigation. The Case Against Adnan Syed went into production shortly after the start of 2015. The series is meant to reconsider the timeline leading up to the disappearance and murder of Hae Min Lee, reinterviewing key witnesses and reanalyzing the evidence presented by the Maryland district attorney’s office. HBO promises that this four-part documentary will unveil new discoveries that contradict the state’s case, as well as provide unprecedented access to Syed, his defense team, his family, friends, and teachers.

Speaking at the this year’s TCAs, Berg expressed her deep disgust with how the case was originally investigated, “Three-and-a-half years later, I still feel very frustrated that police detectives didn’t do their jobs in a more thorough way. We probably wouldn’t be sitting here today if there was more of an investigation done at the time.” She could not stand by and do nothing while Syed sat behind bars. While public interest was high in 2014, the courts grind slowly, and attention around the case naturally dwindled. Despite the occasional news story or book publication, Berg was compelled to get Syed’s name back in the spotlight.

But what about Hae Min Lee? Her family refused to participate in Koenig’s Serial, and they continued that position with Berg’s documentary. However, somehow, Berg received access to Lee’s journal, and The Case Against Adnan Syed will adapt those sequences into a series of animations. While it is imperative that her voice is represented in any conversation surrounding this case, I cannot help but feel a sense of unease regarding this notion. What right does an audience have to these private thoughts?

True Crime entertainment will always have that queasy cloud hanging over it. There is no justification for the thrills we gain from their horror. However, Adnan Seyd has already waited three years for his retrial. Serial granted him one round of reconsideration and Berg may be his only chance at round two. Public opinion is all he’s got right now.

The Case Against Adnan Syed premieres on HBO on March 10th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)