‘The Case against Adnan Syed’

Photo: Supplied

‘The Case against Adnan Syed’ now streaming on Showmax

Adnan Syed – murderer or victim of injustice? You can decide by watching Showmax’s compelling new docuseries:

‘The Case against Adnan Syed’

Photo: Supplied

A young woman brutally murdered. A killer brought to justice. Or was he?

In 2014, podcast series Serial captured global media attention with its investigation into the 1999 murder of US high school student Hae Min Lee. Now a compelling true-crime docu-series picks up where Serial left off. The Case against Adnan Syed, now streaming on Showmax, will have you trying to solve the case from your living room as the facts unfold – and some don’t.

A ‘fresh look’

Almost two decades after he was sentenced to life plus 30 years in jail, this true-crime investigation takes a fresh look into the case against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. 

The 18-year-old Baltimore high school student was last seen alive on the afternoon of 13 January 1999. It would be four weeks before her body was discovered in a local park, and a homicide investigation opened. Following an anonymous tip-off that identified Syed as a suspect, he was arrested on 28 February and charged with first-degree murder.

But this was only the beginning of the story. From the get-go, Syed pleaded his innocence. After his first trial ended in a mistrial, a second trial led to his conviction in 2000, and a sentence that would put him behind bars for life.   

14 years later, break-out podcast series Serial brought renewed interest to Syed’s case, and in 2016 he was granted a new trial. But that decision was overturned in 2019, and, now 20 years into his sentence, Syed remains in prison, still claiming he is innocent. 

The Case Against Adnan Syed, a four-part HBO docuseries from Oscar, Emmy and Bafta-nominated director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from EvilWest of Memphis), takes an in-depth look at Lee’s murder and the trial that followed. 

The series is based on the first season of the award-winning and record-breaking investigative journalism podcast, Serial, which was downloaded 175 million times. 

Over the course of a detailed investigation, award-winning journalist Sarah Koenig, a former producer on This American Life, took the case apart piece by piece, revisiting the evidence and witness testimonies, speaking to jury members, friends of both Syed and Lee, and investigators.

Though Koenig’s series didn’t turn up enough conclusive evidence to either definitively exonerate Syed or put to rest once and for all his claims of innocence, it revealed multiple inconsistencies in the evidence, timeline, witness statements (as well as Syed’s) and in how the case was conducted. 

A global phenomenon

Serial became a global phenomenon. In 2015, the series won a Peabody Award, with a commendation for “its innovations of form and its compelling, drilling account of how guilt, truth, and reality are decided”. It was also credited with rocketing podcasting into the cultural mainstream, with The New York Times hailing it as “podcasting’s first breakout hit.”

The podcast’s popularity led to it having its own dedicated subreddit site, where debates raged among obsessed fans. Even Hollywood was hooked, with celebs from Brie Larson to Sarah Silverman, Chiwetel Ejiofor to Ewan McGregor speaking about their Serial addiction in a Vanity Fair celeb round-up.

It’s a tough act to follow, but Serial’s TV counterpart, The Case Against Adnan Syed, is just as addictive, incorporating new developments in the case, detailed forensics and input from new sources.

In an interview with eOnline, Berg says she would have hoped the series would lead to a new trial for Syed, so that he could put everything on the record, but, she admits, “I don’t think he’ll ever get a new trial, so I think this film will serve as his trial.”

The docuseries has an 82% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for a 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a nonfiction programme, and earlier this year Berg was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Series for Broadcast at the Cinema Eye Honors Awards.

“Berg, in many ways, is picking up where Koenig left off,” says The Atlantic. “With The Case Against Adnan Syed, Berg isn’t just adding to Serial’s story. She’s challenging the playbook for how true-crime stories get told… Berg’s series is most riveting, and sad, when she puts the specifics of the case aside to focus on the people whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by Lee’s murder and its aftermath.”

With the series’ sensitive use of animation to bring Lee to the centre of the story, Berg received praise from The Financial Times for not losing sight of the victim, while The Daily Telegraph (UK) said, “As testament to a tragedy, Berg’s documentary was wrenching. As a quiet indictment of true crime and its ghastly razzmatazz, it was devastating.”

The series is also a compelling mystery that will have you too trying to figure it out, as questions pile up faster than answers. Is there enough reasonable doubt that Syed should at least get the retrial he was denied? Almost certainly. But does that mean he is innocent? You decide.