NaNoWriMo Update 3: Hijacked by Serial Podcast

November 24, 2014 in Best Of by pacejmiller


It’s been a little while since my last unofficial NaNoWriMo update, and there is a good reason for that. After being derailed by work and whatever else last time, my progress has been more or less halted by my latest distraction/addiction: Serial.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing right now and check it out. I’m not a podcast guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I haven’t found much time for them — until now. Following several recommendations, I decided to check out this weekly spinoff from This American Life, where host Sarah Koenig explores a 15-year-old murder mystery, one aspect of the cold case per show.

I started listening to it under the presumption that the whole thing was a radio play, where everything was scripted and performed by voice actors. Even then, I was captivated by the Koenig’s storytelling and the way the case unfolded before my ears. When I discovered that the case was actually real, and that the recordings I heard on the show were real — hory shet, my mind was blown.

You should find out for yourself what the fuss is all about, but in short, the case revolves around the murder of 17-year-old student Hae Min Lee back in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he continues to maintain his innocence. It’s one of those bizarre cases where nothing really seems to make sense — witnesses are shady or unrealiable, the defense may have been inept, the police may have been corrupt, and memories are contradictory or non-existent — and yet there’s nothing concrete that can prove Syed’s innocence. There are ample arguments for and against Syed, and from what I can gather the opinion is split right down the middle. I’ll give my 2 cents on the case below.


I ended up breezing through the first 8 episodes of the show, finding time to listen to it on the run and during exercise (OK, and during work too). I recently listened to the 9th episode and will be eagerly anticipating the 10th, the release of which has been delayed an extra week because of Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I’ve gone back and re-listened to some episodes to see if there are some things I may have missed.

It’s a fantastic concept, allowing listeners to try and solve this riveting case together. Pieces of information are added every week as the picture becomes either clearer or more muddled, and it is up to the individual to come to their own conclusions. As the popularity of the show has grown, more people have come forward with information they think might help shed light on what happened. Given that the show is recorded week by week, there are still new developments happening all the time, including recent news that Syed, now 34, is trying to get an appeal on the basis that he had ineffective legal representation.

The podcast is now listened to by millions, and it has generated unprecedented interest in the case, with new websites dedicated to compiling the available evidence. The podcast homepage is already filled with great stuff you can trawl through during or after listening to the show each week. I’ve tried to steer clear of a sub-Reddit for people to discuss the show because I have fears that I will become so immersed I won’t have time for anything else. But don’t let me try and stop you.

Anyway, I’ve gotten completely off track. What I want to say is that I haven’t been doing any of my NaNoWriMo writing at all, and that I probably won’t until next month. That is all.

Thoughts about the case

Here are my thoughts about the case. Bear in mind, I am fairly certain that we will never get to the bottom of whether Adnan killed Hae, not unless someone confesses. I also happen to flip flop between guilty and not guilty just about every week. Accordingly, these are purely my own worthless speculations based on what I have gathered from listening to the podcast thus far.

I think there are several scenarios available to us:

1. Adnan is guilty as charged, and Jay either helped commit the murder or was an accessory before/after the fact

2. Adnan is innocent, and Jay is the real murderer who framed him, either to help himself get off as part of a plea deal and/or for some ulterior motive such as jealousy of Adnan’s closeness to his Jay’s girlfriend

3. Adnan and Jay are both innocent, but Jay was coerced by police into framing Adnan out of fear they would pin it on him instead

There are other variations, but these are the basic three. Out of the three, I am inclined to believe that No. 1 is most likely. I want to believe Adnan is innocent, and I initially believed that he was. Jay’s story to the police is a completely incoherent mess that keeps chopping and changing. Nothing is really consistent in his narrative. He’s also a shady guy who has a propensity to lie.

The more I listen, however, the more I am convinced Adnan is guilty. I’m not saying the jury should have found him guilty in a court of law — I probably would vote not guilty myself because there is definitely reasonable doubt based on how flimsy the evidence is — but my gut feeling is that he committed the crime. I could write forever about this, but essentially these are the things that suggest to me Adnan has things to hide — things that cast doubt on his overall story of innocence.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s claim that he did not know Jay very well. It makes little sense that he would lend his car and brand new phone to just a “casual acquaintance,” even if they occasionally smoked weed together. It’s also not disputed that Jay often drove Adnan to track practice. Perhaps their culture is different to what I am accustomed to, but it feels like Adnan is trying to distance himself from Jay to make Jay’s story less believable. The “You’re pathetic” Adnan said to Jay before Jay took the stand could be construed in different ways (either “you framed me” or “you ratted me out”), but to me it suggests that they knew each other better than Adnan is letting on.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s insistence that he simply can’t remember anything from that day. As raised in the podcast, our memories are generally unreliable about even recent occurrences, but when something big or important happens we’re much more likely to remember that day, or at least bits and pieces of it. And the day Adnan said felt like “any other day” was the day his ex-girlfriend disappeared and he got a call from the cops about it. He said he remembers the call, but simply thought that Hae was going to be in trouble for running away. However, it’s not every day that your ex-girlfriend disappears, and it’s not every day you get a call from a cop about it.

– Adnan was supposedly still on good terms with Hae after she disappeared. And yet, unlike all her other friends, he did not try to page her after her disappearance. Not even once. That doesn’t smell right. His excuse was that he got the latest updates from friends at school, so it wasn’t like he didn’t care. But if that’s the case, he would have realized that the disappearance was serious only a few days (not weeks) after it happened, at which point it would make sense for him to try and recall if he could remember anything helpful from that fateful day, especially since he got a call from the cops. He might have been only 17, but there’s no way he wouldn’t piece the two together. Hae’s body was found 4 weeks after she disappeared. It might have be really difficult, but not impossible, if he really tried, to recall something — anything — at that stage. If I was being accused of murder, I’d be wracking my brain to remember an alibi, but he offers nothing. Sure, it was in the days before social media, but what about stuff he had written at school? Wouldn’t family and friends have been able to jog his memory? Heck, wouldn’t the call log have done that? It would be more convincing if he said he can remember some things about that day but none of it had anything to do with Hae, but to plead bad memory on absolutely everything comes across as an attempt to minimize the possibility of tripping himself up when questioned.

– I am absolutely baffled by Adnan’s lack of animosity towards Jay, at least outwardly. Jay is the ONLY reason Adnan is in prison for life, and Jay most likely knew something about the murder because he led the police to Hae’s car. If Adnan truly had nothing to do with it, then shouldn’t he feel at least a little angry towards the guy who framed him and would likely be Hae’s real killer? And yet in conversations with Koenig he says he blames himself for associating with the wrong people? That fails the smell test again. He doesn’t even appear to have wondered WHY Jay would kill Hae or frame him. If it were me those questions would be eating me up inside and I would at least try to come up with a theory of why I ended up in this predicament. Instead, of trying to build a case against Jay (“I don’t want to accuse anyone”, Adnan says), he simply says that the case against him built by the prosecution “doesn’t add up?” WTF?

– Adnan reasons for saying that he would have confessed to the murder if he was guilty don’t convince me. He says his parents would sleep better at night if they had an answer to the mystery rather than thinking that their innocent son is stuck in prison for life. He would still be their son and they would still love him knowing that he isn’t doing too badly in prison. That’s fine, but that’s also assuming that Adnan doesn’t have a problem with ending any possibility of ever getting out. He’s still relatively young, and as long as he can deny guilt there is a chance he can be set free some day, especially in light of the problems with the prosecution’s case.

– How easily Adnan has adjusted to prison life is also a potential red flag. An 18/19-year-old Muslim in the post-9/11 world in a maximum security prison full or murderers and rapists sounds like a rough deal, and yet Adnan claims he has no problems with anyone and is generally well-liked. It’s possible that he’s just been lucky, but it also raises the possibility that he perhaps really is the sociopathic manipulator prosecutors insist he is. It certainly would explain why there are people who say “the Adnan I know couldn’t have done this.”

– Jay told Chris, another friend, that Adnan killed Hae. This was independent of him telling the police, which lessens the likelihood that he concocted the story out of thin air. There was also the anonymous caller, who told police to look into Adnan. It is not believed that the call was made by Jay, which suggests other people know something about the murder.

– It wasn’t like the police didn’t have other suspects. Jay was a suspect. Mr S, the guy who found the body, was a suspect. Hae’s new boyfriend, Don, would have been a suspect until his alibi proved to be ironclad. And yet they decided to go after Adnan based on Jay’s testimony. If the testimony was so flimsy and the cops just wanted to to pin it on anyone it makes you wonder why they didn’t just pin it on Jay, given that he was obviously involved somehow and was giving them contradictory information.

– One thing that hasn’t been raised in the show so far is the fact that Adnan and Hae spoke on the phone the night before she disappeared. This is huge, because we’re supposed to believe that the breakup was relatively amicable and that both of them had moved on with their lives without hard feelings. The phone records show that Adnan called Hae 3 times between 11:27pm and 12:35am. The first 2 calls lasted 2 seconds each, meaning she likely hung up on him. The third and final call was a minute and 24 seconds, meaning there was time for words to be exchanged. What was Adnan doing calling her so many times in the middle of the night, and why did she hang up on him twice? And wouldn’t something like this have helped Adnan jog his memory?

Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee

My theory of what happened is rather simple. I think trawling through Jay’s witness statements and trying to make them match up with cell phone records and contradictory accounts from potential witnesses is all a waste of time. It’s all a big red herring. The reason I say that is because I don’t believe the timeline established by the police based on what Jay told them is what happened at all. Forget about the contradictions offered by the Nisha call; forget about the cell towers; forget about the library encounter with Asia — none of these things will fit because the timeline is wrong.

Based on Jay’s actions and what he has said I think it’s fairly clear that his primary aim was to cover his own ass. So he made up a version of the story in which he was not involved at all — without having thought about how all the other evidence would match. When the police tightened their noose around him he admitted to some involvement, and when a plea bargain was on the table he admitted to some more. By then it was too late to change his story, so maybe he went along with whatever police wanted him to say to build a stronger case against Adnan. But there’s little doubt that he knows something about the murder. So I agree that Jay’s story is not to be trusted as a complete version of events, but the one thing he has been consistent about through the whole thing is that Adnan did it. He’s adamant about that, even 15 years later. Unless there is something huge we haven’t been made privy to, I can’t think of a reason why he would make up this lie and stick to it so strongly and consistently.

So what I believe is that Adnan killed Hae. It may have not happened the way prosecutors say it happened, where it happened and when it happened, but the bottom line is that he did it. I also believe that Adnan and Jay are much better friends than they let the police believe, which would explain why Adnan would seek Jay’s “help.” The extent to which Jay is involved — whether he was there when it happened, whether he participated, whether he just helped bury the body — is not that important; what’s relevant is that he was involved enough to know Adnan did it. Jay initially tried to pretend he didn’t know anything when questioned by police, but he eventually caved under the pressure and gave Adnan up.

Adnan pled bad memory on everything because he didn’t want to be tripped up and he believed there was not enough evidence to convict him. He could have pointed the finger back at Jay, but he’d rather both of them get off than both of them go to prison. His lawyer, the late Christina Gutierrez, may not have done as bad of a job as we’ve been led to believe. She was a successful attorney who likely made tactical decisions to not go after certain witnesses (like Asia) and to not let Adnan testify because she knew they wouldn’t help the defense. Or maybe she knew Adnan was guilty so she threw the case. Either way, her later disbarment for mismanaging client money in my opinion is not relevant to her competency in court (as annoying as her voice is).

That’s enough rambling for now. I understand I could probably write as much about why Adnan is not guilty, but this is the way I feel about the case for the moment.