After the obsessive internet sleuthing that followed Serial Season 1, the prospect of re-examining Adnan Syed’s conviction for the murder of Hae Min Lee sounded exhausting.
And yet, roughly five years later, The Case Against Adnan Syed, which premieres Sunday night on HBO,delivers shocking new revelations on a story many true-crime fans know better than the back of their hands. Hae was found murdered in her car in 1999, leading to the conviction of her boyfriend Adnan a year later. In 2014, the Serial podcast raised some serious questions about his guilt.
But the four-part series most notable contribution to the saga is how it reckons with so many of the ethical questions that most true-crime media avoids in order to keep feeding our insatiable appetites for more real-life horror. It paints a gut-wrenching portrait of the immeasurable pain a single murder conviction has, rippling through those even only tangentially involved in the trial decades later.
The past year has seen the release of several other follow ups to true-crime cases that have recently gripped popular culture. Netflix released Making a Murderer Part 2 in October with mixed results. Around the same time, Serial Season 3 returned to its roots, interrogating an entire criminal justice system instead of just one homicide. Even The Ted Bundy Tapesreleased in January by Netflixreignited discussions over our disturbing attraction to convicted murderers and media coverage that all but erases the lives of victims and their survivors.
Each of these follow ups has, to varying degrees, been pushed to answer for the moral uneasiness brought by murder cases that become cultural phenomenons. How can we justify turning people’s lives and deaths into an IRL game of Clue for amateur detectives on Reddit? What does it mean to give even potentially wrongfully convicted murderers more voice than their alleged victims, or the people who loved them?
The Case Against Adnan Syed‘s greatest accomplishment is restoring some personhood to the murder victim.
But The Case Against Adnan Syed is the first to sincerely wrestle with these inherent issues. It doesn’t pretend to have answers. But it forces us to sit with the discomfort of it all by subverting the thrills we’ve come to expect from binge-able true-crime stories.
The most major revelations in The Case Against Adnan Syed are given far less weight than the small moments that capture the emotional toll of re-opening wounds. And unlike nearly every other true-crime narrative in existence, it seems pretty disinterested in finding a bad guy to blame.
Counter to what its title suggests, The Case Against Adnan Syed‘s greatest accomplishment is restoring some personhood to murder victim Hae Min Lee.
Part 1 opens with her words. An actor reads Hae’s diary entry as a beautifully animated reenactment of the high school teen writing in her bedroom plays:
“This book is open to those whose heart is innocent. If you feel any guilt reading this, you should stop. This book is full of my expression. This may make you angry, happy, mad or cry. So do enter at your own risk. Dedicated to those who I love and loved me back. Do love and remember me forever, since I’ll always love you all.”
Animated recreations of Hae’s diary become a visual motif throughout, but unlike during Adnan’s trial and Serial’s debut, the entries aren’t used to debate his guilt or innocence. Rather, they’re the best way to give her a voice, and the audience a visceral sense of who she was and what a monumental loss her death continues to be.
Very few true-crime documentaries bother with the conflicting task of reminding viewers of the human being that should be at the center of our need for answers in a murder trial. Even fewer make viewers actually feel grief over the death of that victim.
But that’s what it feels like in The Case Against Adnan Syed after it switches focus to the trial following Hae’s death. Her absence is keenly felt, as we watch the consequences of it play out in the lives of the people and communities shattered by it.
However, it remains unclear how Hae’s family feels about the documentary or its depiction of their daughter. They have refused to take part in any of the media blitz around her murder. Her parents only appear in The Case Against Adnan Syed in the form of an old news clip, as her mother sobs uncontrollably.
Throughout the Serial craze, the few statements Hae’s family provided begged us to understand how much pain our fascination with her death causes them, pleading for us to let their daughter rest in peace after what they believe to be justice for her murder was served with Adnan’s sentencing.
And the documentary’s sincere effort and success in painting a vivid picture of Hae raises its own bout of moral questions. Do we have any right to know her this intimately, through access to the innermost thoughts of a teen girl? Can we even trust the picture painted, when her convicted killer has more to say in how she’s portrayed than her own family?
The question of innocence, guilt, bias, justice, and who gets to tell their truth in a murder trial is at the center of The Case Against Adnan Syed.
As Hae’s opening diary entry warns, if we feel any guilt over snooping on her, we should stop now. We can’t know what her wishes would be today, but I know I don’t feel innocent while listening to an actor read the secret thoughts of a dead teen. That discomfort is only exacerbated by how Part 1 sets up Hae and Adnan as a sort of Romeo and Juliet.
The Case Against Adnan Syed is transparent in its agenda, which is to show that Adnan was wrongfully convicted. It makes that valid argument well, and with due respect to those who will find that conclusion upsetting.
But its agenda also taints many of its most beautiful achievements. Hae is given a voice. Yet we can’t forget that it’s the voice of a smitten teenager who doesn’t know what’s to come, or that her words will be scrutinized by millions.
It can often feel as if the documentary takes the liberty of speaking for Hae, like when an animated reenactment draws hearts around Adnan’s yearbook picture. Imagine just how disturbing that would be to a family member who believes this man violently murdered her.
The question of innocence, guilt, bias, justice, and who gets to tell their truth in a murder trial is at the center of The Case Against Adnan Syed. It makes us ask ourselves what we even want out of all this.
Yes, we want justice for Hae’s murder. Yes, we want Adnan freed if he is innocent. At least, we tell ourselves that’s what we want.
Having only been given access to three parts of the four-part series, I don’t know which of the many themes the documentary closes on. But I hope the final part turns the camera back on us more, and the phenomenons we make out of these losses of life, and the kind of justice our insatiable need to find the culprit leads to.
In the case against Adnan Syed, we must hold ourselves just as accountable as the criminal justice system. Because both seem to believe murder cases are beholden to satisfying answers rather than to people’s lives.