Disclaimer: If you haven’t listened to the first season of Serial, this is going to make no sense to you. If you have, read on.
Like millions of others around the world, I was fascinated with the case of Adnan Syed presented via the podcast Serial. I found Sarah Koenig’s investigation compelling and Adnan’s story even more so. When Serial ended, I was in the “innocent” camp and felt that, even if you thought Adnan was guilty, it was clear he did not receive a fair trial.
So, this week, Adnan has been in court for a Post Conviction Relief hearing. He’s been presenting witnesses that cover two topics: 1) Ineffective assistance of counsel, as evidenced by the failure of his lawyer to contact an alibi witness; and 2) the fact that cell data used to place Syed at the crime was interpreted incorrectly. The aim is to have his previous conviction vacated and be given a new trial.
Sarah has been attending this hearing and then releasing short updates of the podcast after each day’s testimony. And I have to say…
Sarah Koenig is a terrible reporter.
In the year since Serial debuted, there have been huge developments in the case. The Undisclosed podcast spent hours on the nitty-gritty of the case, uncovering misconduct from the cops to the prosecutor. I don’t know if Sarah has her nose out of joint that someone picked up the story where she left off, but it’s clear she hasn’t listened to that information or done even cursory research into what the actual issues are at this hearing. So, she’s been putting out these updates and focusing on tiny bullshit things that don’t matter right now and then being all “I don’t know, man! This could be bad for Adnan!”
Every other story on the case is covering the fact that the defense is destroying the state’s case, one witness at a time.
Asia saw Adnan at the time the State claims the murder was committed. She said this 17 years ago. She says this today. Her story hasn’t changed. The defense attempted to have her testify at the original PCR hearing and the prosecutor persuaded her not to. Not so, this time.
But what does Sarah focus on? She focuses on the fact that Asia says it snowed on 1/13/99 and that cancelled school for the next two days thus fixing in Asia’s memory which day it was that she saw Adnan. But the weather records say it was an ICE storm that blew in that night, not snow. So maybe Asia is lying?
This is what Sarah gets stuck on. Really? What a fucking nitwit. Whether there was snow or ice that day has no bearing on the issue at hand which is whether Cristina Gutierrez ever contacted Asia regarding this alibi. Gutierrez didn’t. She categorically did not. No one, not even the State, disputes that. What the State is arguing is that it was a strategic decision on Gutierrez’s part to exclude Asia. Except that strategy can’t be formed without facts and you can’t make those decisions without talking to witnesses – and Gutierrez never talked to Asia.
That’s the whole ballgame, right there. Other defendants in other cases have been granted new trials on that basis alone.
But Sarah is hung up on the word snow?
Asia was 17 years old in 1999. She is not going to give a shit if it was ice or snow. What she’s going to give a shit about is the fact that school was cancelled for two days due to bad weather. On this point, she has never wavered. School was indeed closed on 1/14/99 and 1/15/99 because of bad weather. So Asia has her memory on straight. And quibbling about the weather conditions can happen at a new trial, the PCR hearing is for establishing the fact that Gutierrez never spoke to Asia.
The good news is that, according to all reports, Asia did well on the stand. The defense put on several other witnesses that supported Asia’s testimony and all attempts by the State to impeach Asia’s testimony fell completely flat.
The Cell Phone Evidence
This part is dry and so, so boring. In short, two calls supposedly place Adnan at the burial site when Jay Wilds claims they were burying the body. This is based on which cell towers were “pinged” when the calls came in.
There’s a problem though. All of the cell records came with a fax cover sheet that stated clearly that incoming calls were unreliable for location data. Only OUTGOING calls could be use to place someone in a general area. The two calls in question here were INCOMING calls and thus, according to AT&T in 1999, unreliable indicators of phone location.
Except that’s not how the state expert testified at trial. Because the State HID this information from the expert before he did his analysis of the cell data. When made aware of this cover sheet, the cell expert wrote an affidavit RECANTING key parts of his trial testimony.
Now, first of all, Sarah Koenig COMPLETELY MISSED this piece of key information whilst doing her so-called in-depth investigation of the case. She has always found those two calls pretty damning for Adnan. And when this started to come to light – months and months ago – she said NOTHING. It was like she was embarrassed for missing such an important piece of the puzzle. (As she should be.) So now, she really doesn’t want to admit that she was wrong.
The defense put on a witness that basically laid all of this out, laid out how the records SHOULD have been interpreted, and why. After that expert’s testimony, Sarah’s update was still very clearly “I don’t know, man. The State has something up its sleeve.”
So the State brings on its expert on this – a guy in the FBI. And he says the opposite of the defense expert. Says, nope, you’re supposed to interpret the data this way, not that way. The original expert at trial was right. It all worked out okay in the end, no harm, no foul with the cover sheet.
And Sarah buys it, hook, line, and sinker. Swallows it like a goddamn guppy. Sends out her podcast update that basically says, “Yep, State expert says the records are accurate.”
Except totally not. Because the defense began their cross examination of this witness on Friday and made mincemeat of the guy. Without getting too technical, the defense lawyer basically said, “Ok, if we interpret the records the way you say we should, look at these two calls on 1/16/99. One pings in Baltimore. The other in Washington, DC. The calls are 27 min apart. So, if the data is accurate for location, did the defendant have a helicopter in order to get between those two places in 27 minutes?”
And here’s the thing – back in ’99 cell phones didn’t have GPS in them. So, in order to locate someone geographically on a cell phone you had to triangulate them. That is NOT was cell data records do. All they do is show what tower was pinged where for a particular call. And what THAT does is say “Okay, that person is on the East Coast, not Hawaii.” It doesn’t give you any real specificity on location because calls can switch between towers based on 100 different factors.
And that’s for outgoing call only. For incoming calls, sometimes the tower pinged as listed on the cell data is the tower the CALLER’S phone used, not the receiver. And so, Adnan receiving two calls that pinged off the Leakin Park tower is a giant load of BIG WHOOP because that could have been the caller’s phone. It doesn’t prove anything. (There is a lot of other evidence that makes it clear that Hae Min Lee was not buried in the 7:00 pm hour, which also makes these calls immaterial. But that’s evidence for a new trial.)
The defense didn’t get to finish its cross of the State’s expert because they ran out of time on Friday and the hearing will continue into next week. And Sarah, poor lamb, can’t be there. AND THANK GOD FOR THAT. Because she’s done a terrible job of representing what’s really happening in the courtroom.
What’s really happening is essentially a mini-trial. The judge is giving the prosecutor a shit-ton of leeway in his cross-examination questions – far more than is typical – and the defense is taking apart the State’s argument brick by brick. I am hoping that when the hearing is concluded and the judge makes his ruling (the ruling could take weeks to appear), Adnan will get a new trial. And at that time, I’m hoping the State realizes they don’t have any evidence with which to actually convict again.
You would never know it if you listened to Sarah Koenig.
So, Sarah? Stick to your dry, factual, boring exploration of Bowe Bergdahl and stay out of this case. It is fucking bullshit that you would podcast about this when it’s clear you don’t have any real idea of what is going on in the case.