By Roohie Sheikh
Edited by Shanzeh Mirza, Jamie Mahowald, and Manasi Chande
The murder of Hae Min Lee devastated the Woodlawn community in Baltimore on January 13th, 1999. A young and talented girl had vanished with no explanation. The primary suspect was Adnan Syed, Hae’s ex-boyfriend. Syed was convicted of first degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment only months after her tragic passing. Public outrage had pressured Baltimore officials to secure a conviction, arguably by any means, to quell the community’s concerns. Fourteen years after the conviction, a New York Times podcast would once again unravel the mystery by presenting an independent investigation into the murder. Sarah Koenig’s SERIAL had unearthed evidence buried deep in the prosecutor’s office and police department. After many years of failed appeals, Adnan Syed’s conviction has been vacated. Justice remains elusive for the Lee family, and Syed’s conviction evinces the role of the justice system in their suffering. More than anything, corruption within the prosecutorial team and Baltimore Police Department can be accredited for Syed’s conviction, and thus the lack of closure for Hae Min’s family. Hae Min Lee’s unsolved murder and the behaviors exhibited by the prosecution highlight a systemic issue within our justice system and the severity of such corruption in other cases.
Hae and Adnan’s story began in Woodlawn High School, where both were part of a small, tight-knit advanced program. Adnan and Hae’s relationship was seemingly ordinary. The details relevant to Syed’s case occur after their breakup in 1998. After her disappearance, only their mutual friends and Hae’s diary could speak on their love story. Their friends and teachers found no issues with their relationship, and though it was turbulent, it was nothing out of the ordinary for two high schoolers. Hae’s diary gives us significantly more insight into this relationship: entries with love poems, Hae’s adoration of Adnan, and even details of their breakup fill the pages alongside arguments with her parents, school stress, and updates on her friends. She writes about Syed’s being Prom Prince and dancing with her instead of Prom Princess, and she discusses her desire for independence. While the picture painted of Syed is constantly changing, nothing in the diary is unheard of in a high school relationship. But the prosecution uses the strains in their relationship as Adnan’s motive for Hae’s murder. Syed’s status as a second-generation Pakistani American active in the Muslim community put pressure on Syed not to date, and his parents disapproved of their son’s relationship. In December 1998, Hae and Adnan’s differences culminated in their breakup, after which Hae began seeing Don Clinedist, her 22 year old coworker at LensCrafters. Adnan and Hae remained friends after their relationship ended, and Syed even met Clinedist that same month after Hae’s car broke down and she called Syed for help. Overall, nothing seemed particularly alarming until after her disappearance. This is where Syed’s story diverges from the State’s.
Syed’s sequence of events is described in Rabia Chaudry’s book, Adnan’s Story. While Syed’s account of this day should be detailed, it follows a very simple order. As he would on any day, Syed went to school, then to track practice. After practice, he went home where he waited until Maghrib prayers to break his fast at the local mosque. Because of how long it had been since Hae’s disappearance, he tends to stumble on the details. For example, he does not know for certain if he stopped by the library after school –– it was a regular part of the day, and the library was right next to the school. Because of the time since the event, witnesses are all the more necessary to corroborate Syed’s story, yet none were called.
The prosecution’s witness, Syed’s close friend Jay Wilds, claimed that Adnan Syed confessed his crime to him, and they buried Hae’s body together. Wilds’ testimony of what happened that night has changed multiple times since the first police report. Each version has remarkable detail, down to exact words said in their conversation. In the first police report, Wilds says that he and Syed went to Westview Mall, and he dropped Adnan back at school. Supposedly, during this time, Adnan told Jay he intended to kill Hae. After that, Wilds claims that he picked up Adnan from a location twenty minutes away from where Adnan revealed Hae’s body in his trunk. From there, they went to the State Park to smoke marijuana, after which Jay dropped Adnan back at school at around sunset. His testimony concludes when they went to bury Hae’s body at Leakin park around 6:45 PM. During his testimony in Syed’s second trial, small but important details were inconsistent: in his initial interview, Jay claimed Hae’s body was next to them while they dug. But in his trial testimony, he slightly distances himself and warps the situation by saying that Hae’s body was around the corner in the car.
The role of the State in Adnan Syed’s wrongful conviction cannot be understated, yet it has not drawn nearly enough attention for the widespread problems it indicates. In Syed’s case, multiple Brady violations came to light decades after his imprisonment. Brady violations occur when prosecutors in criminal cases hide exculpatory evidence materially in the defense’s favor (24). These injustices are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. In fact, 80 percent of Baltimore’s exonerations were a result of Brady violations. Prosecutor Kevin Urick and his team were responsible for two such instances. First, the State failed to disclose two suspects. While the two alternate suspects were unnamed in the filing, their criminal records were disclosed. The first suspect was arrested for attacking a woman in her car, and the second had a record of serial rape and sexual assault and had threatened to kill shortly before the murder. While a criminal record does not necessitate that either of them were the perpetrator, the severity and nature of these crimes bear a striking resemblance to Hae Min Lee’s manner of death. The latter suspect’s comments on Hae may have altered the course of Syed’s trial by providing a suspect with motive. The prosecutors in Adnan Syed’s case needed to meticulously construct a narrative of his relationship with Hae to establish a motive, and the only person who could support this narrative is Jay Wilds, who claimed Syed also threatened to hurt her. However, Wilds’ testimony changes considerably throughout the trial, rendering him an unreliable witness. The more extreme Brady violation in this case was the editing of evidence which resulted in Syed’s lack of an alibi. In a purposeful tampering of evidence, the cover page of an AT&T cell phone tower records book was ripped off. The page contains a disclaimer that estimates for incoming calls and voicemails were not reliable to determine location. Because this evidence was the backbone of the state’s case against Adnan Syed, omitting the cover page entirely changed Abraham Waranowitz’s testimony, as he explains after the cover page was found. Abraham Waranowitz, the radio frequency engineer from AT&T, was an important witness at both trials for the prosecution. His testimony and interpretation of the cell tower coordinates were the only evidence the State had to link Syed to the crime scene. Unfortunately, this evidence was not made available in its entirety to the defense. Under the impression that the cell tower tracking was reliable, Christina Gutierrez did not call a single one of Syed’s 80 alibi witnesses. Had the cover page not been torn off, the defense would have been able to present a solid alibi, especially since the timing of the incident occurred between two important prayers in Ramadan where many would have seen Syed at the mosque. With 80 witnesses at the mosque and Asia McClain’s seeing Syed at the library, the timeline presented by the prosecution for Syed’s crime becomes highly questionable. Together, these Brady violations guaranteed Syed’s conviction. As Urick conceded in a 2015 interview with The Intercept, “Jay [Wilds]’s testimony by itself, would that have been proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Probably not. Cellphone evidence by itself? Probably not.” If Jay Wilds’ testimony and the cell tower coordinates are the only things linking Syed to Leakin Park, and both are individually unreliable, there is no concrete evidence linking Syed to Hae’s murder. Thus a larger issue surfaces –– whether witness testimonies should be guided by evidence, or whether this evidence would render the testimony useless.
Misconduct in the Baltimore Police Department
While allegations of corruption or misconduct are common among law enforcement officials, higher authorities rarely act upon them. Most police departments use internal disciplinary action when an officer’s behavior is unethical, but when such behavior is widespread and severe, it necessitates review from the FBI. For instance, the FBI’s 2016 report on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) detailed numerous issues regarding its gun task force, perjury, falsified evidence, and racial profiling. One section of this report discusses the methods the BPD uses to skirt investigations into misconduct, claiming that the department “discourages members of the public from filing complaints; improperly classifies complaints to mask misconduct; delays investigations of complaints unnecessarily; uses poor investigative techniques to gather evidence about misconduct; fails to consistently document the results of its investigations.” (15) In addition to the legal protection given to law enforcement by qualified immunity, the doctrine shielding government officials like police officers liability in civil suits, the department’s measures to obscure misconduct makes accountability nearly impossible (15)(25). This may explain why detectives with countless wrongful convictions are allowed to continue their work, despite the consequences for the accused. Such instances of evidence tampering in investigations do not make Syed’s case a surprise or an outlier. In Maryland v. Syed, detectives with a clear history of wrongful convictions led the investigation. William Ritz and Greg MacGillivary, the lead detectives on Adnan’s case, engaged in questionable strategies throughout the process. The timings given for Jay Wilds’ interview indicate that the detectives likely had an unrecorded pre-interview. There remains speculation that during the pre-interview, Wilds was fed his story by the detectives, and the changes between his initial police interview and his trial testimonies raise suspicion. Both detectives already had the AT&T records tracking incoming calls, and Wilds’ story changed to align with this evidence (15). Though Urick claimed that the cell tower records corroborates Wilds’ testimony, the unrecorded pre-interview brings us back to the question: Did Jay Wilds change his testimony in accordance with the newfound evidence?
Aside from Syed’s case, William Ritz worked on the Sabien Burgess case, in which the defendant’s conviction was overturned with proof that the detectives had withheld exculpatory witness statements. Similar to Syed’s case, one of these statements pointed to an alternate suspect but was hidden from the defense. Burgess spent decades of his life in prison, and in 2014 was exonerated and granted $15 million for his wrongful imprisonment. Only a few months prior to Syed’s trial, Ritz worked on the case of Malcolm Bryant case, who was charged with the murder of a 16 year old girl on one eyewitness. The witness gave a description of the perpetrator used to make a composite, yet elements of her description were misconstrued. For example, she described the perpetrator as being a few inches taller than her. She was 5’3, but the composite described the attacker as 5’11. The detectives had also hidden witness statements and DNA evidence that would have made Bryant’s innocence clear. But BPD made efforts to hide this evidence, even putting a witness on the stand to say all DNA evidence had been destroyed. Malcolm Bryant was exonerated in 2016. MacGillivary, the second detective leading Syed’s case, has also had multiple wrongful convictions. Rodney Addison, convicted of shooting someone in their car in 1996, was imprisoned for nine years before exculpatory witness statements were rediscovered. The witnesses called by the state could not have seen the murder from their position, and the witness hidden by MacGillivary asserted Addison was not the right person. In a different investigation led by MacGillivary, sixteen-year-old Garreth Parks was convicted of second-degree murder in 2000. In 2015, Parks filed a public records request and received a file including the police report of Burgess, one of Parks’s alleged victim’s admission to the crime. On top of the document was a hand-written note saying the report was not to be released per the instructions of prosecutor Cassandra Costley. The officer who made the report admitted that he had included anything about the confession in his testimony against Parks. Adnan Syed’s case suspiciously parallels all these prosecutions in its tampered reports and spotty record of witness statements. Undoubtedly, these detectives’ records warranted investigation far before Syed’s, yet as the FBI found, the BPD was severely lacking in internal discipline. As such, we can frame Syed’s case as part of a larger corruption issue in criminal justice.
In addition to the mistakes made in the murder investigation, there were several uninvestigated suspects. These may have gone unnoticed because of the prosecution’s hyperfocus on Syed, but were surely as likely ––if not more likely –– to be the culprit as Syed. The most apparent is Don Clinedist, Hae’s boyfriend at the time of her death. Clinedist’s alibi -- he was working at Lenscrafters during the incident ––was accepted to be true, halting the Baltimore Police Department’s investigation of him. But his alibi was verified only by the manager at Lenscrafters, who at the time was his mother. Because of his behavior with Hae’s friends and his eventual relationship with her best friend, many have called for further investigation. Another possible suspect was Alonzo Sellers, who found Hae’s body buried in Leakin Park while driving. Though he had no relationship with Hae Lee, his discovery of the body warranted suspicion, and investigators ruled him out only on an unreliable polygraph test. The investigation into Sellers ended there, disregarding evidence that he had been involved. With the lack of a clear perpetrator, Ronald Lee Moore, a man with a history of violent crime, briefly became a suspect. After his release from prison, Moore was named as a suspect in Hae’s murder, but when DNA evidence did not match, the investigation into him ended. While there is very little evidence against any of these suspects, it is worth noting that there was no further investigation. The investigation into Hae’s murder was in no way thorough and was fixated on Adnan, even if this meant creating an intricate story.
Ultimately, none of the questionable actions in the course of his trial were responsible for Syed’s conviction being vacated. In 2021, Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act (JRA) took effect, granting leniency to those sentenced as a juvenile to adult penalties. Because Syed had served over 20 years for a crime at age 17, he qualified for a hearing for a sentence reduction. The passage of the JRA was monumental for “superpredator” convictions, a term coined in the 1990s labeling the mythical class of extremely violent urban teenagers . After nearly two decades of shifting attitudes towards crime and incarceration, the mid 90s saw severe sentences with no chance of parole. In fact, the courts approved no recommendation for parole from 1995 to 2015. (7) The move towards criminal justice reform beginning in the late 2010s introduced initiatives to mitigate the harsh penalties imposed by courts decades prior. Measures like Sentencing Review Units or Conviction Integrity Units symbolized the tremendous progress made by progressive prosecutors’ offices, but they still fell short. Adnan’s case reflected these harsh attitudes towards crime. Charged at 18 with no criminal record for a heinous crime, the rhetoric surrounding Adnan’s conviction reflected the superpredator myth. While Baltimore did have a review unit, it failed to further investigate the crime, Syed’s counsel, or even the multitude of unethical practices Urick used to secure his conviction.
Many accredit SERIAL with the overturning of Adnan Syed’s conviction. But the immense public pressure in high-profile cases can also sustain wrongful convictions. While SERIAL resulted in scrutiny towards the conviction, media coverage often creates urgency, resulting in fast and questionable convictions. Despite the attention given to Adnan Syed’s case for decades, the conviction would not have been overturned without the JRA. Until there are impactful changes in the BPD and prosecutorial teams, such injustices can be expected even with sentencing and evidence review units, and the vacating of wrongful convictions will remain a lengthy battle.
 Hae Min Lee, Diary of Hae Min Lee, https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/vol2D-Joint-Record-Extract-E1286-1363-COA-20180921.pdf.
 Opening Statement of Mr. Urick, First Trial of Adnan Syed, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/T1oth-19991209-Opening-Statement-Mr-Urick-First-Trial-of-Adnan-Syed.pdf.
 Don C. Testimony, First Trial of Adnan Syed, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/T1w10-19991213-Don-C-Testimony-First-Trial-of-Adnan-Syed.pdf.
 Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2019).
 Jay W. Wilds, Police File: Jay Statement, Redacted, First Official Interview, Information Sheet, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/MP15-0229-19990228-Jay-Statement-Redacted-First-Official-Interview-Information-Sheet-Rights-.pdf.
 Jay Wilds Testimony, Second Trial of Adnan Syed, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/T2w22a-20000204-Jay-Wilds-Testimony-Second-Trial-of-Adnan-Syed.pdf.
 Abby Zimmardi & Shannon Clark, Release of Adnan Syed focuses attention on Maryland wrongful prosecutions,  Maryland Matters, Sep. 26, 2022, https://www.marylandmatters.org/2022/09/26/release-of-adnan-syed-focuses-attention-on-maryland-wrongful-prosecutions/.
 Mᴏᴛɪᴏɴ ᴛᴏ Vᴀᴄᴀᴛᴇ Jᴜᴅɢᴍᴇɴᴛ in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed, Nos. 1991103042, 043, 044, 045, 046. https://content.govdelivery.com/attachments/MDBALTIMORESAO/2022/09/14/file_attachments/2270053/Syed%20-%20Motion%20to%20Vacate%20-%2009-14-2022.pdf.
 Lee O. Sanderlin & Alex Mann, Man considered alternative suspect in Hae Min Lee’s killing was known to authorities, had close ties with Adnan Syed, The Baltimore Sun, Oct. 3, 2022, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/investigations/bs-md-cr-adnan-syed-suspect-trial-20221003-d5lwssoio5crlc5govl7yonfcy-story.html.
 Wilds, supra note 6.
 Police File, Subscriber Activity Report, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/MP15-1416-Fax-from-ATT-Adnan-Cell-Phone-Records-5-Col-Unredacted-Subscriber-Activity-Report-2p-Missing.pdf.
 Abraham Waranowitz, Affidavit, (2016), https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341bfae553ef01b8d1a48b4a970c-pi.
 M. Cristina Gutierrez, Re: State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed, (1999), https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1391490/syed-defense-witnesses.pdf.
 Natasha Vargas-Cooper & Ken Silverstein, Exclusive: Prosecutor in 'Serial’ Case Goes on the Record, The Intercept, Jan. 7, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/01/07/prosecutor-serial-case-goes-record/.
 Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department, (2016), https://www.justice.gov/crt/file/883296/download.
 Police File, notes, Jay, Pre-Interview, Ritz, The Undisclosed Wiki (2018), https://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/MP15-1833-notes-Jay-Pre-Interview-Ritz-19990228.pdf.
 Talia Richman, Jury awards $15 million to Baltimore man exonerated of murder, The Baltimore Sun, Nov. 21, 2017, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-burgess-verdict-20171121-story.html.
 Maurice Possley, Malcolm Bryant, The National Registry of Exonerations (2019), https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=4883.
 Amelia McDonell-Parry, Did Baltimore Cops “Conspire” to Suppress Evidence, Leading to a Wrongful Murder Conviction?, The Appeal, Apr. 2, 2019, https://theappeal.org/did-baltimore-cops-conspire-to-supress-evidence-that-led-to-a-wrongful-murder-conviction/.
 Maurice Possley, Garreth Parks, The National Registry of Exonerations (2019), https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5390.
 Don C. Testimony, supra note 3.
 Allison Piwowarski, Is Ronald Lee Moore ’Serial’s Missing Piece?, Bustle, Dec. 2014, https://www.bustle.com/articles/54589-ronald-lee-moores-criminal-record-makes-his-serial-finale-appearance-very-interesting.
 Brady rule, Wex (2021), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/brady_rule.
Qualified immunity, Wex (2021), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/brady_rule.
 John DiLulio, The Coming of the Super-Predators, Washington Examiner, Nov. 27, 1995, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/the-coming-of-the-super-predators.