Five years and 175 million podcast listens later, the world is still fascinated with Adnan Syed's case.
After the hit podcast Serial introduced listeners to 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the trial of Adnan Syed in 2014, the debate over whether or not he did it took over the pop culture conversation.
That conversation was once again in the headlines after The Case Against Adnan Syed, HBO's four-part docu-series Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg, came to a dramatic finish on Sunday night, dropping several new revelations about the case, Adnan's plea deal that was previously unreported and his defense team's tireless and exhaustive battle to overturn his conviction.
Though Adnan was delivered a crushing blow when the highest court in Maryland denied him a retrial in March 2019, just before The Case Against Adnan Syed debuted, Berg told E! News she saw the docu-series as "his trial" in the court of public opinion (though it never offered a definitive answer to his guilt or innocence).
"I would hope that Adnan would get a new trial, because I know that's what he wants the most is to put everything on the record," Berg said. "But I don't think he'll ever get a new trial, so I think that this film will serve as his trial for many reasons."
But is there really no chance of a new trial? We spoke with Rabia Chaudry, an attorney, childhood friend of Adnan's who serves as his public advocate and is responsible for bringing his case to Serial in the first case, about the major revelations, the hardships and the future in their fight for Adnan's freedom.
The DNA Evidence
20 years after Hae's murder, evidence from the case was finally tested, and delivered major news: 12 items were tested, including fingernail clippings, a liquor bottle, a condom wrapper and blood samples, and not one item tested proved to be a match for Adnan.
As Rabia, who served as an executive producer on the docu-series and is not a member of Adnan's legal defense team, told us, "It's a big deal."
In a statement to E! News, Adnan's attorney Justin Brown explained why this evidence is so important.
"This is significant. Of all the samples taken from and around the victim, none contained Syed's DNA. Thus, after a thorough round of testing, there remains no forensic link between Syed and the crime," the attorney said. "Of particular significance was the testing of the victim's fingernail clippings. The State presented at trial a theory in which the victim was killed in a struggle inside her car. The State argued that the struggle was violent enough that it caused damage to the inside of the vehicle. If such a struggle occurred, it seems likely that the assailant's DNA would have been present under the victim's fingernails, or somewhere else inside the car. The recent testing, however, found none."
But for the state, the results don't indicate Adnan's innocence..
"These results in no way exonerate him," Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General's office, told The Baltimore Sun, who first published the documents containing the results of the test, which was conducted last summer.
While Adnan's DNA was nowhere to be found, one female DNA profile not matching Hae was found on a piece of rope found near the place where she was buried.
"It could potentially exculpatory, but it also could potentially point to the actual killer. It is big," Rabia said. "Obviously the fact that his DNA was found nowhere in a crime that you would think leave something says something. Absence of evidence is also evidence."
After revealing the DNA testing results to his private investigators, Brown said that whoever that unidentified profile belongs to was "not in the system," meaning they had never been booked by the police.
"While these DNA results do not reveal the true killer, they do go a long way in showing that the wrong person is in prison for this crime," Brown said in statement to E! News.
For Rabia, it's "reprehensible" that the state has no interest in looking into this unidentified DNA.
"There was a full female profile found on one of the pieces of evidence that's not in the system. The state now says, 'Well, we're done with this.' That's reprehensible that you don't care enough about the truth that you don't want to find the source this DNA and there are methods now. There's still ways for the DNA to exonerate him and I think we're going to look at that too."
In the statement from the Attorney's General office to The Baltimore Sun, Coombs said, "After receipt of results of the testing, no further action was warranted."
The Plea Deal
One of the biggest revelations in the final installment of the HBO series was that Adnan was offered a deal that would mean being released from prison back in November 2018.
During Serial, it was revealed that before his first two trials, Adnan had asked his then-lawyer Christina Gutierrez to ask the prosecution about a potential plea deal, something she never did.
In The Case Against Adnan Syed, before the state made their offer, Adnan talked about potentially accepting a plea deal.
"I was telling my mom, you know, if they offer me a plea deal to get out, I'm going to seriously consider it," he said. "She would love for me to be home, but I could see it crushed her spirit a little bit. Like why would you plead guilty to something you didn't do?"
Here's why: "When you first get arrested, you're like, 'No, I'm going to fight. I want to prove my innocence,'" he explained to the filmmakers. "When you get to like five years, it's like, 'OK, I still want to fight.' When you 15 years, almost 20 years, it's like 'You know what, I'm just trying to get out of prison, man. Like, what do you want me to do?'"
When addressing the possibility of meeting with the prosecutors to talk about making a deal, Brown said Adnan would only consider an offer if it was an Alford deal, which is a guilty plea in criminal court where the defendant does not admit to the criminal act and maintains their innocence.
The state did eventually make an offer: A guilty plea and four more years in prison (meaning he would be released in 2022), with no option for an Alford plea.
Adnan ultimately rejected the offer, explaining, "What they're offering is just so bad, it's so unreasonable."
In a statement provided to E! News, Brown said, "Adnan turned down the state's plea offer because it required him to admit guilt -- and he is not guilty of this crime."
Rabia was "not surprised" that Adnan rejected the offer because it wasn't an Alford plea, and said he "probably" would've taken it if that was presented to him.
But there was also something else: the pending appellate court decision.
"The state makes a plea offer when they feel they have the losing hand. A state never makes a plea offer if they have the winning hand," Rabia explained. "The fact that the state won this last appeal…I think it was a shock to the state. Everybody agreed with him at the time, if he says no now and goes on to win the appeal, unless the state would make the right offer...that offer was kind of like the first offer, the state tried it, they put it on the table, Adnan said no and then we lost and that was completely unexpected. If we had won, I can virtually guarantee the state would've come back…because they cannot go to trial."
So does Adnan regret his decision to turn down the deal, even if it would've meant entering a guilty plea? Hindsight, as always, 20/20.
"He's a human being. He has said to me, 'There are moments where I have absolutely no regret because I made the best decision,' and I agree, I believe he did the right thing," Rabia said. "And then there are moments where he says, 'Did I do the right thing?' He thinks about that. He's a human being."
And like Adnan said, if he did plead guilty, it would be like "exchanging one prison for another."
Rabia explained, "It would've hung over his head for his life that he took a guilty plea and then he served four more years…it's a different kind of prison and he deserves better."
Jay's Latest Statement
For anyone familiar with Adnan's story, the revelation that Jay Wilds, described as "the center of gravity" in this case by Rabia as he served as the State's key witness, was once again contradicting his past statements to police wasn't all that surprising. Still, his statement to the filmmakers (he declined to participate in a formal interview) were noteworthy.
The biggest revelation from Jay's latest statement (which was provided in January 2019) was his claim that the police told him to say that the first time he saw Lee's body in the trunk of her car was in the Best Buy parking lot.
In the docu-series, Jay now claimed Syed showed him Hae's body in the trunk of her car in front of his house. As for how Adnan convinced him to help bury her body, Jay alleged that Adnan had previously asked him to procure 10 pounds of marijuana, which he then used as a threat.
For Rabia, the latest change in Jay's statements is somewhat "frustrating," but she believes there is a reason for it: "I think he's scared, to be honest, because this is a practice and pattern with the Baltimore police."
She then referenced a recent article published by The Appeal about an ongoing suit filed against the city's police department by Jerome L. Johnson, a man who was exonerated in July 2018 after serving 30 years for a murder he did not crime, and documents an alleged pattern and practice of suppressed exculpatory evidence and witness coercion by Baltimore P.D.
Though Jay gave his first and only interview to The Intercept in December 2014, after declining to speak on the record in Serial, Rabia doubted any future statements from the state's key witness would help.
"The frustration is that he has lied so much now that even if he actually told the truth, no one would ever actually believe him."
The Legal Team's Next Step
In the next week or so, expect to see Brown file a motion to reconsider with Court of Appeals. "You ask the same set of judges, 'Reconsider your decision because you made X, Y, Z mistakes' or whatever," Rabia said, adding it's "highly, highly unlikely to succeed, not just in this case but in any case. It's very, very rare that a court overturns itself basically."
Still, in addition to filing that motion, "there are multiple options" Adnan's defense team can pursue.
"We are prepared to go to the Supreme Court," Rabia said, "His attorney has said that many times...to ask them to review this court's decision. We already have people looking at that. We can take the entire matter out to the federal circuit, file federal habeus [corpus]...we can even go back to the original circuit court and file a new post-conviction petition in which we raise claims of ineffective assistance of counsel against the current attorney, who himself is saying, 'Do this if that's what it takes.' we can also go to the district attorney's office and say we want to file a claim of actual innocence."
While there are several options to consider, one thing is certain: It will be a very long, arduous process. (Not that it hasn't been already.)
"People have no idea…every step of the way we have come so far has been a miracle. Getting a PCR (post-conviction relief) reopened, you have like a 1.5 percent chance," said Rabia. "People can fight 30-40 years and never get that new trial. It is so, so rare, so our chances are slim to none, but they have been slim to none this whole time, so I keep expecting us to see more miracles, to be honest."
For Rabia, as Adnan's public advocate, her day-to-day mission is keeping people interested, which is exhausting, but "it's amazing how anger can fuel you," she said.
At a screening of the final episode of the HBO documentary, Rabia, who wrote 2016's best-selling book about the case, Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial, recalled talking to a group of people about everything they've done to keep Adnan's case in the public consciousnesses.
"I was joking, you know, the legal process will continue but as his public advocate, we got lucky. We got the world's biggest podcast to cover his case, the book was a New York Times bestseller, the documentary's on the most premiere platform…I kind of don't know where to go after this. Do I do Adnan: The Musical?"
Sure, millions of downloads and views is great, but Rabia said, "You can win and win and win and win and one loss and you're set back 20 years."
The Timing of the Court of Appeal's Decision
Though the appellate court had until August 2019 to make a decision as to whether or not to grant Adnan a new trial, they revealed their verdict on March 8, just two days before The Case Against Adnan Syed was set to premiere on HBO.
In a 4-to-3 vote, Adnan lost the appeal, with his conviction reinstated by the court.
"We are devastated by the Court of Appeals' decision but we will not give up on Adnan Syed…There was a credible alibi witness who was with Adnan at the precise time of the murder and now the Court of Appeals has said that witness would not have affected the outcome of the proceeding," Brown said a statement at the time. "We think just the opposite is true. From the perspective of the defendant, there is no stronger evidence than an alibi witness."
For Rabia, the timing was "absolutely" no coincidence.
"It was an incredibly fast ruling, nobody expected it to come this quickly," Rabia said, "because these things take forever and they had until August to issue it. I think this was timed so that...the court wanted to avoid any appearance of being influenced by the documentary. I think that might've been why they timed it like that."
That could mean the success of Serial, The Case Against Anand Syed and the ongoing media coverage could potentially hurt Adnan's chances, but Rabia said, "The thing is you're damned if you do, damned if you don't."
And before she contacted Serial's Sarah Koenig about Adnan's case, Rabia, who launched her own investigative podcast Undisclosed in 2015, said, "We waited patiently for 15 years for the court to do the right thing...we gave up on the legal system."
(For those wondering, Rabia is no longer in touch with Sarah, but the podcast host and executive producer, who won a Peabody Award in 2015 for Serial, "writes to him, I think, every so often.")
Besides, with the boom of the true crime and investigative genre Serial caused after its debut in 2014, including Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and podcasts like Up and Vanished and In the Dark, the media has now become unlikely allies.
"What's happening right now—the media, documentaries, journalists—they are doing the job the courts should do, they are doing the jobs the prosecutors and cops should do," Rabia explained. "They're filling in the gaps. And they wouldn't need to do it if these other people did their job right."
The Most Important Piece of Evidence
It's not alibi witness Asia McClain's testimony. It's not the new DNA evidence, though it is "important." It's not Jay's inconsistent statements. It's actually the autopsy report.
In the documentary, Dr. Jan Gorniak, a forensic pathologist, explained that the theory presented by the state at trial was inaccurate based on a double-diamond shaped mark on Hae's body, caused by lividity (the settling of blood after a person dies).
For the mark to appear on Hae's body, Dr. Gorniak said it would take 8-12 hours for the pattern to fix, making the prosecution's claim that she was buried by 7:30 p.m. impossible as the lividity would have to be fixed by 10:30 p.m., at the earliest.
"It is the victim's body because the body testifies to what happened to it," Rabia said when asked what she believed to be the most important evidence in Adnan's case. "Until now, everyone ignored it: the state ignored it, the medical examiner ignored it…it's astonishing because the theory [the prosecutors] were offering was completely inconsistent with the autopsy report. Hae had to have been somewhere for at least 10-12 hours before she was buried, it makes every other thing irrelevant. Nothing happened at 7 o'clock that night, the cell phone tower information, none of that matters anymore. And we're back at square one."
While Adnan's legal team does not need to present a new suspect or version of events that happened on Jan. 13, 1999, but Rabia feels it may be necessary (and still not enough).
"Right now where we are is that we have a solid alibi that the circuit courts found credible, we have an alibi witness, we have an autopsy report that shows nothing that the state or the witness said could've happened to the victim, we have DNA results that clear him, there are forensic hair and soil samples…nothing matched," she explained. "It's almost like he's presented every single piece of evidence he possibly can and the state still says, 'Well that doesn't mean he's innocent.' And so it almost seems like...without state power, without subpoena power, without investigative power, [we] somehow prove who killed her and that's the only way...it shouldn't be our job, it just shouldn't."
Regardless, Adnan's team remains, "committed to overturning his conviction," Brown said in a statement.
But it won't be easy, with Brown admitting in The Case Against Adnan Syed, "It's tough out there. These cases are just so f—king hard to win."