Adnan Syed up close yet impersonal in new TV special

The narrative of the Adnan Syed case is so compelling that each time I write about it, I have to remind myself that a real Baltimore teenager was killed and her real family members continue to mourn.

I repeated that process about halfway through a screening of the Investigation Discovery production "Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty?" that premieres later this month on the Maryland-based channel.


"Remember: These are real people that all these talking heads are talking about," I wrote in my notes, "NOT characters in a made-for-TV movie. Hae Min Lee is dead, and Syed has been in prison 17 years."

Hae Min Lee at prom.
Hae Min Lee at prom. (Baltimore City Circuit Court Archives/ Investigation Discovery)

Easy to say, hard to hold on to while watching a fast-paced, smoothly constructed true-crime TV production with re-enactments, hyped-up narration and crime scene photos. I suspect most viewers will just get onboard this prime-time train and ride it for 60 minutes straight to the end. This is, after all, the channel with such shows as "Southern Fried Homicide" and "Swamp Murders." The program flow is one of tragedy, murder and death — often involving young women.


There's an appetite for true crime, no doubt about that. And Investigation Discovery intends to fill it, even if its idea of an investigation doesn't quite live up to some of the journalistic standards I associate with that word.

The scheduling of "Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty?" this month certainly seeks to exploit a current information void on the case, as an audience of millions created by the "Serial" podcast in 2014 awaits a ruling from a Baltimore judge on whether or not Syed will get a new trial.

The wait has been on since the conclusion of a postconviction hearing in February. Look for other network, cable and streaming outlets to be offering similar reports in coming weeks. The media can't get enough of this story of teen love and murder. And its relevance more than 17 years after the crime is understandable.

There's a legitimate "Romeo and Juliet" resonance — but with a very American twist. Syed was born in the U.S., but his parents come from Pakistan. Lee emigrated with her mother and brother in 1980 from South Korea. Family opposition to their relationship made Baltimore County's Woodlawn High School, where they were students in 1999, one of the only places they could be together.


The prosecution further upped the emotional content by injecting religion and probably some prejudice into the case by emphasizing Syed's religion, Islam, and suggesting his ethnic and religious background gave him a special motive for revenge as a "jilted" lover.

"Indeed, it appears that the prosecutor relied on ethnic and religious stereotypes in contending that Mr. Syed committed the murder because 'his honor was besmirched,' claiming it was the defendant's 'religious beliefs' that motivated him to kill," Mansi Shah, president of the South Asian Bar Association of North America, wrote in a letter to The Baltimore Sun in 2015.

But the big reason the media love this story so much is the phenomenal commercial success of the "Serial" podcast by Sarah Koenig, a former Sun reporter. Everybody wants a piece of that pie.

"The serialized podcast in 2014 has more than 130 million downloads to date, proving unequivocally that this is one of the great true-crime stories of our time," Henry Schleiff, group president of the Investigation Discovery, American Heroes and Destination America channels, said in a statement. "With a judge expecting to make a decision at any time, we want to give our viewers not only the crucial information surrounding Adnan Syed's case, but also the personal, firsthand accounts of what to expect from key players."

Adnan Syed in 1998.
Adnan Syed in 1998. (Serial)

"Serial" did rock the media landscape, and it did so in large part by addressing listeners in a way that allowed them to try to solve the original crime with Koenig. It made listening to the podcast an interactive, rather than passive, event.

Audience members were able to play armchair detective with Koenig, because she presented herself as an armchair crime reporter, constantly second-guessing her own analyses and referencing her lack of expertise. That was a brilliant choice in terms or narrative and voice, and it does make "Serial" a landmark production.

But representative of the overstatement often used in true-crime pieces, Justin Brown, the Baltimore attorney now defending Syed, says in the opening segment of the Investigation Discovery production, "No one even knew what a podcast was before 'Serial.'"

Not exactly.

Retired Baltimore surveyor Phillip Buddemeyer returned to the burial site where Hae Min Lee's body was found 17 years ago in Leakin Park. Buddemeyer's job was to record the distance from the road to where the body was located. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

The New York Times had a piece in 2004 — 10 years before "Serial" — on podcasts as a trend in media. And a trend piece in the Times says someone knew what podcasts were before "Serial."

(I screened a fine cut of the show. That is not necessarily the final cut that viewers will see when it premieres, so the producers could still delete Brown's statement. I hope they do.)

But amped-up rhetoric rules in the true-crime TV genre.

"Now, for the first time on TV, key players in the case tell their story," the narrator says 45 seconds into the special. "And there is new evidence that could crack open the case."

At which point, viewers see video of Ryan Smith, the ABC News correspondent who reports the piece, holding up a piece of paper and asking Brown rhetorically, "And this is really the smoking cover sheet fax in the case, right?"

Smoking cover sheet fax. Wow.

A single, short line - 'There's a shrimp sale at The Crab Crib' - uttered in the 'Serial' podcast has turned a Baltimore seafood shop into a cult success. (David Andrews for The Baltimore Sun)

While the fax is important new evidence, it is also contested, according to The Sun's account of the February hearing.

In the original trial, prosecutors used cellphone logs to place Syed's phone — and presumably him — near Leakin Park where Lee's body was found.

But Brown challenged the reliability of that evidence with a fax cover sheet that accompanied the records of the call from AT&T. The cover sheet warned about the unreliability of using incoming calls to pinpoint location.

Brown contended that the cover sheet had either been withheld from Syed's original defense team or overlooked by his trial attorneys. As a result, the cellphone expert who testified at Syed's trial in 2000 said he no longer stood by his account.

But the prosecutor countered with an FBI agent who specializes in cellphone work, who testified that the "analysis was still accurate and would stand today," according to Justin Fenton's reporting in The Sun.

That is not included in Investigation Discovery piece I screened, and it should have been.

Investigation Discovery has what it bills as the "first-ever one-on-one interview" with Brown. If true, that's a good thing. But since the Baltimore police and the prosecutors did not talk to the filmmakers, Brown's point of view tends to drive the storytelling. And that can be problematic in terms of balance.

Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik on the final "Serial" podcast. The 12-episode series focused on Hae Min Lee's murder. The Woodlawn High School senior's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime. (Baltimore Sun video)

It's hard to stay out of the weeds — arguing point by point on details of the case until your head explodes — on critiques of true-crime TV productions. I am not going there.

This is not great nonfiction TV. Nor will you find any major new information about the case that wasn't in coverage of the February hearing for a new trial.


But if you care about this case — and millions do — this is a program you will want to see.


And, in the end, the filmmakers do redeem any sins of the true-crime TV genre that might have been committed by focusing in the final moments on Lee as a real person who lives on in the hearts of teachers and friends.

I am happy to report I didn't need that note about remembrance after all.




"Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty?" premieres at 9 p.m. June 14 on Investigation Discovery.

Correction: Sarah Koenig's first name was misspelled in an earlier version.