HBO’s four-part documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” should perhaps be titled “The Case For Adnan Syed,” the man convicted of killing his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore County in 1999 in a case made famous by the “Serial” podcast.
The first three parts, which were made available for preview, are more than anything else an argument against the prosecution’s case during a trial in 2000 that sent Syed to prison for life. He was granted a new trial in 2016, but appeals by the state have kept him in prison where he awaits a decision from a panel of judges that heard arguments last November.
To the millions who listened to the “Serial” podcast and came away believing Syed was innocent, this documentary from director Amy Berg is for you — at least, through the first three parts.
Not that others won’t find it absorbing and even moving at times. This is a skillfully crafted work of nonfiction dealing with profound themes of love, assimilation, ethnicity, family, religion, community, crime, justice, prejudice, passion and the criminal justice system. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Law & Order.”
The pro-Syed orientation of the production is clear from the very first frames.
The series opens in the kitchen of Shamim Rahman, Syed’s mother, who runs a day care center in her Woodlawn home. Helping her with the children in the segment is Yusuf Syed, Adnan’s younger brother.
As Syed’s mother holds a small child on her lap, the interviewer asks if she had this center when Adnan lived at home.
“Oh, yes.” she says, “He used to help me, too. Yeah.”
And then, she looks away as tears well up in her eyes. When she looks back to the interviewer, the camera closes in for a tighter focus on her saddened face as she apologizes for the tears.
Between her words, tears and the camera’s framing, it is impossible not to feel some sense of empathy. That tighter framing of an emotional moment is a director’s way of saying, “This matters. Pay attention. I want you to feel this moment.” That’s the first and one of the most powerful emotions invoked in the series.
“When Adnan went to prison, it was like a big piece inside all of us had died,” his brother says in the next shot. “We thought he was gone forever. But then Rabia, while she was in law school and while she was raising two daughters, she was always there for us and she was always fighting for Adnan.”
Yusuf goes on to say, “Adnan would have been forgotten by everyone if it wasn’t for Rabia.”
Rabia Chaudry, a Maryland attorney who is identified in the series as an “advocate” for Syed, is an executive producer and prominently featured talking head, so how could the film not favor her point of view?
Followers of the case from its earliest days will remember Chaudry as a driving force on social media and behind the scenes fighting for Syed’s innocence. She is the person who brought Syed’s case to the attention of Sarah Koenig, an executive producer, reporter and narrator of the “Serial” podcast, which went viral and was downloaded a reported 340 million times.
Berg’s direction takes viewers from the Woodlawn home of Syed’s family to Chaudry’s home where she is preparing a nursery for her third child. The attorney is shown going through boxes of documents for Syed’s case, some of which she still carries in the trunk of her car. She holds up an amateurish-looking flyer she says she created at home to try and raise money for Syed’s second appeal. It’s headlined: “INNOCENT 17-year-old Pakistani Muslim boy wrongfully convicted and sentenced to LIFE PLUS 35 YEARS.”
After losing an appeal in 2013, “Rabia pursued a new strategy for Adnan’s case,” viewers are told in a caption on the screen.
“For years, I had been saying to Adnan, ‘We should go to media. We should go to journalists, because they can do things we can’t do,’” Chaudry says, as the first distinctive notes of the “Serial” podcast soundtrack are sounded.
“I went to my laptop and started looking for a reporter who had covered the case in 1999 for the Baltimore Sun,” she says.
The first name she came across, Chaudry says, is that of Koenig, who had left the Sun and was working as a producer in public radio.
As invested as Koenig became in Chaudry and her cause, she ultimately kept some distance from Syed’s staunchest advocate.
“As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan,” Keonig said in the “Serial” finale.
But she also added, "If you ask me to swear Adnan Syed [is] innocent, I couldn't do it.”
I don’t find any of that ambiguity in the first three parts of this HBO series when it comes to arguing for Syed’s innocence by taking apart the case that put him in prison.
But to Berg’s credit, this is not a one-sided production or legal polemic. Just as she evokes empathy and sympathy for Syed and members of his family, so does she for Lee and her family.
The anguish of Lee’s family and Baltimore’s Korean community over the teenager’s death is prominently and sensitively explored. Indicative of the director’s commitment to doing justice to Lee’s death is the lengths she goes to in the first hour, titled “Forbidden Love,” to bring Lee to life for viewers.
Berg uses voice-over, illustration and animation to breathe life into the words of Lee’s teen diary. These are daring choices, and at first I didn’t particularly like them. The animated sequences felt a little too much like a Disney movie to me.
But I came to admire the risk and the commitment in trying to make Lee as fully realized a person as Syed. And Berg did not have that much in the way of videotape and still photographs to work with in telling this story of star-crossed teen love set among the sons and daughters of immigrants in Baltimore County.
(A small factual complaint. Viewers are told Lee’s diary was written in a book she bought at the Baltimore Museum of Art during a class trip to see a Monet exhibit. But what viewers see is an image of The Walters Art Gallery, not the BMA. Screeners are not finished versions, so perhaps the correction will be made by the time Part 1 of the series premieres March 10.)
But if the first hour is Disney and Shakespeare, the second and third are Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” with the police investigation of Lee’s murder and then the trial that sent Syed to jail driving the narrative.
“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders,” a narrator says at the start of each “Law & Order” episode. “These are their stories.”
Only in “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” the stories of both the police and prosecutors are mainly negative ones featuring cops and prosecuting attorneys who allegedly did not represent “the people” very well at all.
The focus of the investigation of Lee’s murder is a fellow classmate of Lee and Syed at Woodlawn High School, Jay Wilds, whose confession of helping Syed bury Lee’s body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park played a crucial role at trial.
Wilds is first interviewed by Baltimore City police on Feb. 28, 1999.
This is where the case against Adnan begins,” Chaudry says of the Baltimore City police interview with Wilds.
“Jay is the center of gravity in this case. It all revolves around Jay,” she adds. “Jay told the story that convicted Adnan. At trial, he said Adnan killed Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy, and then he also said he helped Adnan bury her in Leakin Park. The thing is that the story Jay told at trial is not the same story Jay told police the first time.”
The allegation is made that Baltimore City police detectives helped Wilds “craft his story” to convict Syed. In the post-Gun-Trace-Task-Force climate of crooked cops in Baltimore today, that is a much easier sell than it was in 2000.
Some of the prosecuting attorneys come off just as badly in the offensive characterizations of Muslims and tactics they used to make their case against Syed.
“The Case Against Adnan Syed” is as deep a TV dive into the history of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death and Adnan Syed’s controversial conviction and imprisonment as anyone could want. It is not just a video version of “Serial” by a long shot.
Said to be in production since 2015, this series touches a lot of bases with many of the players from that ‘90’s Woodlawn High School world and all the courtroom moments since brought back before the camera to talk about they saw, heard and think they remember.
Such true-crime documentary series have become a compelling and successful genre of prime-time programming.
But the thing we need to remember as we watch this absorbing, entertaining production is that it isn’t “Romeo and Juliet” or an episode of “Law & Order.” It isn’t fiction.
A real woman was murdered, and her family still suffers tremendously. Meanwhile, a real man sits in prison convicted for it, and his family suffers, too.
So far, so good. But I hope after I have seen Part 4, I can say the filmmakers did justice to all that pain and suffering in making this documentary TV series.
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“The Case Against Adnan Syed” debuts at 9 p.m. March 10 on HBO.