Serial Podcast: Adnan Syed didn’t do it. Honestly.

Serial Podcast

I just spent about a week in Miami, including (obviously) two flights to/from the city, and during the entire period of time, I managed to “binge-listen” to the Serial podcast from This American Life, which is one of the (if not the) most popular podcasts of all-time. (People are now calling this period “the great podcast renaissance.”) I write a lot about true crime on this blog, and the Serial podcast is essentially about true crime (it follows one case from January 1999), so I figured it would be a good idea to put together some thoughts about it. I was going to call this post “A bunch of thoughts about the Serial podcast,” but that didn’t seem to really have a very good SEO tie, so I went with something I believe through the first nine episodes: Adnan Syed, currently in jail in Maryland for murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999, is actually innocent. And now, a bunch of thoughts.

The Journalism Aspect (Before We Get Into The Case)

I’ve had a couple of different “journalism-type” jobs — for example, I worked at ESPN for years — although I wouldn’t necessarily call myself “a journalist” by any means. (I link tons of stuff on this blog, but I don’t officially fact-check everything I link, no.) Some people are uncomfortable with the way Serial unfolds, because it’s not tried-and-true journalism. Rather, the host (Sarah Koenig) often will ruminate aloud about how different things she’s learned have changed her view of the case. I personally think this is a good technique, and I think it explains part of the reason for the podcast’s popularity. Very few things in life are cut-and-dried; in fact, in many complex situations (which crime can often fall into), we learn new pieces of information and have to fit them into a contextual whole. We can go back-and-forth on things. That’s legitimately human nature. But, at the same time, we’re trained to believe that a journalist presents us with facts that have been vetted and does so in a professional way. That’s not always how Serial works — remember the sequence talking about Adnan and Jay stoned at “Kathy’s” (not her real name) house, where Koenig mentions she’s been that girl? Oftentimes, we think “a true journalist” wouldn’t approach things that way.

There’s also the issue of “white reporter privilege,” best detailed here. In the first episode, one of the most interesting aspects is that this will be a case involving the American immigrant experience — because Adnan and Hae were both exactly that. Sarah Koenig is, essentially, not that. Her entire staff on this show is white. She brings in many voices, yes, but to think she can completely capture the experience she’s somewhat trying to define is impossible. I’m not necessarily saying the podcast would be better if a Pakistani or Asian hosted it, but I understand the concerns therein.

The Timeline

There are numerous issues with the timeline of this case and where people were at different points and what cell phone towers were in use, etc. Here’s a fairly detailed timeline of events from the actual day.

In general, the time window you’re evaluating is about 21 minutes — essentially, 2:15pm until 2:36pm, when authorities believe (and time of death could be inexact) that Hae was killed.

Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed, pictured here in 1998.

Here’s the transcript from Episode 5 where Koenig and a producer do the exact route from Woodlawn High School to the Best Buy where the crime supposedly occurred. They did it in 22 minutes and 2 seconds. That’s an extremely tight window if you believe Hae was killed at 2:36pm. You pretty much have to get everything right — there can be no time lapses or traffic snarls — and you have to kill her in about 1 minute (possible, but some argue it takes closer to 5 minutes). That’s a very narrow window for a 17 year-old who likely has never killed before.

Start with the timeline, then — if time of death and phone calls is even remotely right, there’s a very narrow ability for this to go down.

Best Buy Situations

Reddit has claimed there was a pay phone at the Best Buy in question, but it seems Koenig and her team did a lot of digging on this, and the proof isn’t there. (In Episode 9, they talk even more about it.) Let’s say there wasn’t a pay phone — that puts a lot of holes in different stories being told about Adnan, especially from Jay.

Here’s my other concern: this murder had to take place in broad daylight, because even if you don’t think 2:36pm is the time, it probably happened during the afternoon of January 13, 1999. Even if they went to the corner of the Best Buy parking lot — maybe even behind the main building, or off to the side or something — that’s still extremely hard to (a) kill someone and then (b) move their body into the trunk of the same car without anyone noticing. Has it happened in human history that people have been killed in broad daylight and stuffed into cars? Sure. It has. But in those 30-40 seconds it would take, there’s a huge risk of a shopper coming by and seeing something, etc.

This all goes along with the timeline issues. For a novice murderer to do this in broad daylightat a Best Buy, and within a super-tight time window — that’s very hard to believe.

Now, you could believe the actual murder took place somewhere else — a pool hall, the school library parking lot, etc. — but there are holes with those theories too.


This isn’t discussed a lot, but it seems important if you think about it from a human psychology standpoint. Stephanie is Jay’s girlfriend. Apparently she’s very close with Adnan. Apparently, six or seven years after the murder, Jay was telling old HS classmates that he got involved and did what Adnan wanted because he was afraid he (Adnan) would hurt Stephanie. Sarah Koenig has been able to get almost everyone in this case to talk about it, including Jay. She never (to this point) got Stephanie, going so far as to mention that after all these events, “a wall came down” for Stephanie. It impacted her friendships. People close to the case have said “they want to hear Stephanie’s side of the story,” while also indicating that Hae was, at one point, preparing to confront Jay about his infidelities (cheating on Stephanie). It seems like, from Episode 1, maybe Jay wasn’t the greatest boyfriend — Adnan had gotten a birthday gift for Stephanie, but Jay hadn’t. That’s where the entire thing basically starts. That’s why Jay had Adnan’s car for pockets of that day. Stephanie is a key cog here, IMHO — from a sheer psychology standpoint, walls don’t come down and friendships don’t end over things that didn’t affect you in a major, tangible way and over things you don’t know a lot about.

Hae’s Credit Card

This hasn’t been mentioned on the podcast, but has been mentioned in other spots of the Internet. There’s a $1.71 charge on Hae’s credit card on January 13, 1999 at a location very far from her cousin’s school (where she had to go pick him up, apparently). This gives credence to the idea that maybe Roy Davis is involved; Davis was ultimately arrested in a similar-type crime that happened about a month before Hae went missing. Davis’ location at the time (January 1999) lines up with the gas station where the $1.71 was charged. If you remember the episode where Koenig and company go look at the site of the body being found, there was a bunch of stuff nearby — including liquor bottles, etc. — that was never really tested. Some of that stuff could be connected to Davis. There’s been some reports that the Innocence Project is looking at Davis as a possibility for Hae’s murder, but that could be inaccurate.

The Entire Crux Of Everything Is Jay vs. Adnan

Probably the singular aspect that makes Serial interesting is this: it all comes down to whether you believe Jay, Adnan, or that Jay and Adnan worked together on this. And if you believe either side or a combo theory, it’s very curious that they speak of each other so passively and ill-defined. In the ‘Deal with Jay’ episode, his friends and acquaintances talk about how he stood out. Adnan barely defines him. Jay barely defines Adnan. In sum, they don’t seem to really be friends. They smoked pot together. I smoked pot with a ton of kids in HS. I would never reach out to one of them if I had committed a murder. There are some insane conspiracy theories about Jay, sure, but how weird is it that a high school kid — who likely never murdered before, if he murdered this time — would go to some random pot friend of his to help with everything?

Jay Wilds

Here is Jay Wilds, known only as “Jay” on the Serial podcast.

I know the theory is “criminal element” and/or Adnan threatened Stephanie and/or Adnan told Jay he’d expose his pot-dealing and connections, but that doesn’t really seem to hold up.

All this stuff with Adnan and Jay and Stephanie could be tied to drugs and a bigger, badder real killer, yes.

Your theory of this case ultimately comes down to who you believe in terms of Jay and Adnan, which leads into …

Baltimore Area Courtrooms

Most people here have probably seen The Wire. You know the stereotypes associated with Baltimore. 7 of the 12 jurors were African-American. Jay was dressed nice, kept it polite, didn’t really raise his voice. Adnan is a Pakistani Muslim. Who do you think a jury in that situation is going to favor? (Because I don’t think I explicitly mentioned it before, Jay is African-American.)

Maybe Adnan Is A Psychopath

When Koenig goes and talks to the Innocence Project people in Charlottesville, the lead lady tells her there’s a slim chance of her getting a mild-mannered kid who’s really a psychopath on her first foray into this kind of reporting. I agree with that. It does seem unlikely.

The thing is, though, if you watch enough true crime shows or follow the news — or even look at trends in popular culture, where anti-heroes are all the rage — a very notable aspect of all this is the simple question of: Is anyone capable of just up and being evil?

Certainly, it’s possible. (That’s for a longer post on this blog.)

It might have been possible with Adnan, and some of those theories around how he might have been crazy and how he planned it out are listed here.

William Ritz

He was a detective on the Adnan Syed case; in 2012, he ultimately left Baltimore PD under a cloud of ill-gotten gains, police-wise. I’m not saying that every cop who’s made a mistake once has made a mistake in every case they’ve worked, but this does need to be considered. Here’s another case law context where Ritz may be corrupt.

Why I Ultimately Think Adnan Is Innocent

  • The timeline makes no sense to me, or anyone with a brain. (Yes, it could be wrong.)
  • It would be very hard to kill someone at a Best Buy in broad daylight, at a school library parking lot, or at a pool hall.
  • Jay was done up well for a jury, but seems like a less-than-trustworthy person overall.
  • The defense lawyer (Christina Gutierrez) seems to have approached the context of the case all wrong. (More on that in the next episode.)
  • I don’t think Mr. S (the guy that found the body) did it, but I do think the streaking stuff is weird and 127 feet seems a long way to go just to pee.

Honestly, sometimes I think this case is a bit like Lauren Spierer — it’s possible that a crew of friends, some of whom had ties to drugs, got in over their heads in terms of what happened one afternoon and all started cross-covering for each other. Over time, the situation fades from memory because the police and justice system are backed up with other cases. But it did cause friendships to erode (as we’ve seen here) and parents to openly weep. The obvious difference between those cases is (a) Spierer’s body was never found and (b) no one is in jail for it. But the basics of what happened — things going too far and drugs playing a role — could be the same.

What’s Next?

There appears to be a January appeals situation which may represent Adnan’s “last, best chance at freedom.” Sarah Koenig “can’t promise a perfect ending.”

I’m sure I missed a bunch of stuff above, and glossed over a few key parts, but — what’s your theory of what happened?

Hae Min Lee and Friends

Hae Min Lee and her friends.

Ted Bauer


  1. I think they need to consider Asias story. Also, since there was a major storm that day, why doesnt Jay mention this in his story to the police. Would be kind of tough to dig a ditch in the snow and the ground had to be hard.

    • Asia’s story is important, but I feel like it kind of got pushed to the back in how this was all rolled out — maybe because it was initially presented in earlier episodes.

  2. Oh, and my theory is as Occam’s Razor would imply, i.e. he did it. There is really no plausible alternative person with motive and with which the known evidence would fit. I do not believe it was premeditated though. I wish he didn’t — I wish it were someone else.

  3. I’m not all caught up yet (currently listening episode 8 at work) but there is something not holding the entire story, like you said, the timeline doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know if I can even rely on my Law & Order knowledge on this since this is not TV but something, somewhere in me is saying “Adnan is innocent.” It’s not because I think he’s a nice guy but because there’s something about the case is fishy. I’m not saying that the detectives and the medical examiner/s didn’t do their jobs or that the jury was biased or was paid to say he’s guilty (it could be possible since corruption is and always be somewhere, somehow) BUT isn’t it odd? All these physical evidences play an important part and it wasn’t used that much? Like Deirdre (if that’s the correct spelling) said, the case was too thin to even have a case; it was a case that has no case and shouldn’t have went to trial or the grand jury (I’m not a lawyer or law enforcement so I’m basing all of these from the podcast and Law & Order/Closer knowledge). But then again, Deirdre is a lawyer and has been a lawyer for 20+ years so she is talking as a lawyer but not as a detective. I understand Koenig’s POV but I’m also being as skeptical about Adnan as much as I can. Yes, Adnan does have a point most of the time but he also doesn’t help himself in any way either. His answers about something significant (and can help him in this case) is always “I don’t know, man” or “Maybe he/she’s right” or just a silent pause with maybe a little sigh. My take on the case (so far) is that Jay is either protecting himself, someone else or he knows Adnan really did it and he was there but all those inconsistencies is really bothering me. Something also very significant to me is the phone booth at Best Buy; I always find myself saying, “If I were investigating this case, everything should’ve meant something whether it’s relevant or not.” Sorry if this was a long, long comment but I am really hooked on this podcast. Can’t wait for the next episode and second season!

  4. I did cable and telephony work at one time, and before cellphones took hold we would drive around and find a suitable location for a phone and get the property owner’s permission to install it. The work was performed for a contractor (i subcontracted to them) and in order to get paid for each installation i had to present a signed form with the location, date and time, and a schematic of the area (rough) and a photograph.

    What i am saying is – there ARE records of pay phone installations. If there is no record, the phone does not exist. There are also records of calls to and from every phone, because that phone goes live as soon as the carrier brings it online. To me, the BestBuy/pay phone location is a red herring.

    I love the podcast, and Susan’s admissions that she vacillates as she considers evidence that points in one direction or another. What really strikes me is that there is a decided confirmational bias in the eyes of law enforcement that seems just plain wrong, and it is compounded once the case is being made and/or presented. If justice is truly blind and the idea of a jury of our peers is the one true chance any defendant has – how is it then acceptable that the prosecution is allowed to omit facts and theories and just make up a story they feel they can “sell” to the jury? Shouldn’t both sides be working to get to the truth, and put that information in the hands of the jury? Shouldn’t the jury have ALL the evidence, and not just what once side or the other wants (Susan and Traynor talking about “bad evidence”)

    One of the jurors (Lisa Flynn – said this was “huge”) Susan interviewed said that since Adnan did not testify – he must have been hiding something. Also the jurors say they were were unaware that Jay plead guilty and received a deal. Surely that needs to be in their minds as they consider *why* Jay is offering such testimony.- which changes a number of times throughout his testimony. How can you ignore that as a juror? We learn this from watching Law and Order and Youtube videos – as well as “Never talk to the police,” Get a lawyer, and say nothing .If you talk to them, are now another person who offers evidence – whether you are guilty or innocent.

  5. It all begins because it’s Stephanie’s birthday. That’s why Jay has the car. He buys her a present. Stephanie is Jay’s “life”. Yet he spends her entire birthday with everyone but her. He even watches the sunset in a park…with a guy?! Stephanie is the only one who is there for Jay’s hearing.
    The timeline used to convict Adnan is clearly bogus. No one seems to recognize that Hae would certainly resist her attacker. So she would have to be subdued, dead and moved to the trunk in a very few minutes. How about the difficulty of lifting and moving a limp body? Hae was tall.
    I don’t think Adnan did it.
    Let’s say Stephanie killed Hae on a time line that allowed her to be back wherever she needed to be…who would she call to help her? Probably not her ‘best friend’ Adnan but her boyfriend Jay? And Jay then leads the story completely away from his love.
    Again, I don’t think Adnan did it. Hope the innocence project people help him.

  6. Fabulous article…Sarah’s reporting has made it feel like we’ve been along for the ride throughout her investigation. So impressive.

    This whole case was a circus and a travesty of justice. Whether or not Adnan actually committed the crime, there was definite reasonable doubt and in the end, isn’t that all that’s necessary?

  7. The burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt was not satisfied by the prosecution. The jury should never convict anyone with a case that thin laid out before them. That is one of the most frustrating aspects to this whole case. You hope if you ever find yourself in a situation like this that you can rely on your fellow peers to judge according to the facts laid before them.

    jays’ story is what has stuck with me. Obviously he was involved. He knows too much and was able to tell them facts about the case, location of Hae’s car being the big one, that no one would know unless they were directly involved. Why he is telling the story so long after instead of directly after is what bothers me. I think he knew they were getting close and he had to go ahead and take a risk and tell them he was involved but give them someone to take the heat off him. Adnan was that person. Jay and Jen having an affair and Hae telling Stephanie seems to be a pretty good motive. Jay and Jen doing the crime and them being the people that were basically the ones to place blame on Adnan would be a logically step for them.

    Interesting case.

  8. I’ve just listened to all 12 episodes today. Here’s what sticks in my mind: (1) if you were planning a murder, wouldn’t you do it at night, when you were not likely to be seen? (2) if you were planning a murder, wouldn’t you know you were going to have to dispose of the body, and bring a shovel along, so you wouldn’t have to go get one (thereby risking being caught)? (3) if you were planning a murder, wouldn’t you make SURE the coach knew you were at track practice, so you would have an alibi?

    The Prosecution claimed Adnan was smart, manipulative, and methodical. If so, I think I think he could have thought this through a little better. I don’t know if he did it, but I don’t believe it happened as presented in court.

  9. what makes this story so compelling is the lack of clarity on so many levels. Why is Adnan so sketchy about it all? Why did he ask Hae for a ride and then deny it? Why does Jay tell a BestBuy story then a pool hall story? Why would Adnan ask Jay for help for anything? He had to know he was unreliable. You would ask your brother or cousin not a stoner acquaintance. Why didn’t Adnan make sure he a great alibi’s for the whole evening? Jay could clear it all up but why should he? He didn’t 15 years ago and has no reason to do so now.

    • It was always really interesting to me that you can take any day in your life around the same age, right … and you can try to re-trace it … and even if something major happened, you may not know every single part. You know what I mean? It’s remarkable how much of life we live but can’t put into any order or context, even with a major event in the middle. And this story has SO MUCH of that.

      • Maybe but I feel like I’d recall everything after the police called me. Plus he’s spent the last 15 years in jail for this day so a fairer question is to remember a specific day 6 weeks ago.

      • Also Hae’s body wasn’t found for a month after she went missing and that’s when the teens started being interviewed, that’s a long time to remember every detail in a day. If Adnan really did it and was some mastemind, you’d think he would have had a story ready to tell police.

  10. I don’t think Adnan did it and I think Jay’s testimony was coerced. The detectives probably told Jay and Jen that Adnan absolutely did it and Jay and Jen would go to jail if they didn’t testify. I forget where I saw it but they were telling Jay he was the prime suspect. I also read that Jay’s plea deal was contingent on his testimony convicting Adnan and the prosecutor getting Jay’s attorney pro bono stinks! I think it’s very plausible that Roy Davis was the killer especially if Hae really did know him and his wife cut Hae’s hair. Maybe he flagged her down for help. I have my fingers crossed that dna will free Adnan. I haven’t read anywhere that Hae’s trunk was processed. I know her car was but was there evidence that her body was actually ever in her trunk? The things Jay brings up over and over and certain descriptions he uses makes me think he was coached. Some examples are how he describes Hae’s pantyhose from a brief pop of the trunk as taupe. How many young men would know that’s what is written on the pantyhose package? Or in his new interview he calls himself the criminal element (who calls themselves that?) and says he was a big time dealer, then why were they riding around looking for dime bags? All of Detective Ritz’s cases should be looked at again.

    • I’m sad Serial is over, and I still mostly agree with you. The timeline just seems so forced to me, you know? Also, the recorder was off for so long with Jay and the cops. What was going on there?

    • Have you listened to “Undisclosed” podcast? It’s very pro-Adnan, but three lawyers (including Rabia Chaudry who got Sarah on the case in the first place) who pick apart the state’s case. And there’s some really, really, interesting stuff left out of Serial. Including evidence of Jay being coached by detectives, Hae’s license plates being run by police miles away from where the care ended up, forensic evidence that show’s there’s no way she could have been left in a trunk for hours, and a really brutal episode on her body and autopsy. Very interesting for anyone who listened to Serial.

  11. I believe Adnan is innocent. The police fed this story to Jay. Either Jay killed Hae, or a random unknown person did. Everybody believes the real smoking gun is & what makes Jay’s story believable at all is that Jay knew where the car was. Well, if this is a case of police corruption & prosecutorial misconduct, then why is it a stretch to believe that Jay did not lead them to the car…that the police located the car & fed the location of it to Jay as well as all the other details. The police know they need a smoking gun & that’s it. If a random person didn’t kill Hae, then I believe it was Jay. Also, the vast majority of phone calls made supposedly around time of murder…before, during, & after were calls to & from Jay’s friends. This is when Jay testified he was with Adnan & the murder was happening. Adnan says he was at practice during this time. The only call to one of Adnan’s friends is the Nisha call. I can’t imagine being with my friend & them using my cell phone more than me. Maybe 1-2 calls would be understandable. I believe Jay was alone with Adnan’s cell phone & that’s why the outgoing & incoming calls were all from & for him. I agree the Nisha call could have been an accidental call,especially since she was #1 on his speed dial.

  12. OK, so if Adnan HONESTLY didn’t kill Hae, shouldn’t he be screaming from the rooftops that the real murder is JAY!?! Jay knew where the car and the body was. If it were me that was charged with a murder I knew NOTHING about, all based on the testimony of a friend–every other sentence out of my mouth would be, “Jay is a murderer on the loose. HE killed Hae and he is just out in the world while I am rotting in jail.” Instead of stuff like ‘I don’t know why Jay would lie.’ Jay just didn’t ‘lie’; he was the actual murderer if it wasn’t Adnan.

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