‘The Case Against Adnan Syed’ and Why We Love Unsolvable Cases

What we can never know in a true crime story can be frustrating, but it keeps us coming back for more.
Case Against Adnan Syed
By  · Published on April 2nd, 2019

This past Sunday was the second time Adnan Syed’s story came to a close for audiences, but it never feels like it will ever be finished. HBO’s four-part true crime docuseries The Case Against Adnan Syed retells the 1999 murder case of Hai Min Lee and the new trials that followed the hit podcast “Serial,” which covered the case in 2014. The HBO series doesn’t hide the fact that most true crime fans were already familiar with the case, because it has more to say. The Hai Min Lee case seems like one of the many cases that can never be fully understood, no matter how many experts revisit the circumstances of the case and reinterview witnesses. The series does more than just showing the audience the murder case on the screen instead of on a podcast; it reveals just how uncertain we can be about the finiteness of solving a case and how the story always evolves in the people involved.

In 1999, high school senior Hae Min Lee was found murdered in a Baltimore park after she disappeared after school four weeks earlier. An anonymous phone call to the police shifted investigators’ focus to her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, and they never let up on him until they convicted him on first-degree murder a year later. Ever since Syed was first found guilty in 2000, his family and lawyers have been trying to get him out of jail and prove he was wrongfully convicted.

The Case Against Adnan Syed picks up where “Serial” left off, showing how the podcast has affected his family and brought national media attention to his case. In perhaps the show’s strongest scenes, the audience sees the family who has been separated with their son. They never lose hope that Adnan is innocent, but the appeal process and having the world have an opinion on their son is not easy. It’s clear this show isn’t just about the murder and the interesting investigation. There are real people who have been shaped by this case. The Lee family lost their teenage daughter. While they are not interviewed in the documentary, their loss and devastation are felt in their unaltered belief that the police brought justice to Lee’s death. Syed’s family also lost a child to an investigation where they felt powerless. Their whole community is updated on Adnan’s progress because his conviction affected everyone who knew him. Adnan and Hai’s friends talk about how they knew them and what the case meant to each of them. The bystanders of this case provide insight into how the death of one person can change the course of so many lives. People will always offer a new perspective on Hai and Adnan in their unique memories of them. Hai’s death and Adnan’s conviction changed how these people saw the world around them, and because of that, they each have an interesting story of their own. Things can always be reconnected, remembered differently, and uncovered with time. There is a different story of the murder in each person the case touched at some point in their lives and for that, the story is always evolving somehow.

Lee’s murder, like so many, doesn’t have a straightforward timeline or conclusion. The evidence is questionable, even nonexistent, and the witness testimonies have changed many times since 1999. The initial testimony of Syed’s supposed accomplice Jay Wilds’ claimed he wasn’t involved, but then he told police a completely different, and elaborate story about how Syed told Wilds he had killed Lee and needed his help burying the body. In the documentary, Wilds confesses over a phone call with his ex-girlfriend that police planted that confession on him in order for him and Syed to get out of a marijuana charge. The only evidence the police used to corroborate their story is cell phone records from Syed’s phone. Investigators also latched onto Wilds friend Jennifer Pusateri’s story that Wilds confessed to seeing Lee’s body in Syed’s trunk but didn’t help bury her body. The accuracy of the records is questioned in the documentary, and the lack of physical evidence makes their stories hard to believe. Without a coherent and unquestionable story of Lee’s murder, the justice that law enforcement served doesn’t shut this case. There are so many unanswered questions in the initial investigation that most of Lee’s story is left untold. 

True crime thrives on untold and unsatisfying investigations. It’s where storytellers can come in an fill in the holes of shotty evidence and unreliable confessions while making something more interesting in retrospect than when it was first covered. The Case Against Adnan Syed does a decent job in reexamining the evidence presented in the trial against Syed by showing how the phone records were misinterpreted and how Lee’s car may not have been in the spot it was found the whole time she was missing as the investigators suggested. The evidence that remained untested until now is ruled not to have Syed’s DNA in the final episode of the series. These points do a great job of questioning whether or not the evidence that was presented in the case is correct. However, it doesn’t find the answers to the questions that go along with proving the evidence is wrong. This should be sufficient enough to get Syed out of jail, but it doesn’t make Lee’s death clearer. Reexamining evidence when revisiting a case for a true crime story can sometimes cause more questions than answers, which allows for the case to be retold in a million different ways without ever having a true conclusion.

The other aspect of Lee’s murder that allows it to be revisited many times is that it depends on the stories of teenagers. As mentioned before, Wilds’ and Pusateri’s stories are not consistent on their own or together. They constantly change as well, because the person telling them isn’t the same. To that end, it seems like they are untrue, but even if they were, people’s memories change over time, especially memories that are from when they are so young. Wilds has been an unreliable source for the truth of Lee’s death and will continue to be, but as the documentary shows, he can come up with new stories as time passes. He allows for a different explanation to believe each time the case is revisited, which is just as frustrating as it is interesting to watch.

Wilds changing story reveals how much pressure we put on people to tell the whole truth of a murder in a trial, which is inherently impossible. If even they are telling their truth, that doesn’t mean we can know everything there is. True crime sometimes ignores this aspect of nonfiction storytelling and tries to make a finite ending where there isn’t one, but it does allow for many versions of the same crime. There can be podcasts, docu-series, documentaries, etc. that explore the same crime, and yet audiences can still have unanswered questions.

Thankfully, The Case Against Adnan Syed recognizes this inherent aspect of true crime. Many of Lee and Syed’s friends talk about how they’ll probably never really know what actually happened to her. Even if Syed does get out of jail, which sadly seems unlikely now that he was denied a retrial, it doesn’t provide the real answer to who killed Hai Min Lee. It just rules out who didn’t, which can be frustrating for the people trying to move on from her death, like her family. We’ll never really know how she died, and if someone came and confessed everything right now, people may not even believe that story completely. What’s even more heart-breaking is that we’ll never know the person that Hai Min Lee could’ve been either. We can read her diaries, look at pictures, and listen to stories about her from when she was alive, but they’ll never tell us what we want to know: who could she have been if she hadn’t died.

Perhaps that’s what drives us to the most devastating and unsolvable cases, they allow us to really consider what didn’t happen in life. They’re stories that represent our most haunting frustrations with life. Maybe that’s why we revisit them over and over. We simply cannot let go of the victims and the lives they never got to live.

Related Topics: ,

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_