Like everyone else in the world, I’ve been listening to Serial. For those who haven’t listened in yet, Serial is a weekly podcast covering the murder of 17-year-old Hae Min Lee, who was killed on January 13, 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping, and is currently serving a life sentence. (And if you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, turn back now and come back when you have. Otherwise, the minutiae of these cell phone records won’t be interesting in the slightest.)
The evidence against Adnan was complicated and deeply ambiguous. That’s unsurprising — after all, there’s a reason his case was chosen to be the subject Serial’s first season. But while there’s much we do not know about the the investigation into Hae’s murder and the state’s case against Adnan, based on what the show has covered so far, and what has been made publicly available about Adnan’s two trials, there are many reasons to be unsettled by his conviction.
This doesn’t mean Adnan is innocent. It’s unlikely that there exists conclusive evidence as to whether or not he is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, absent the unlikely discovery of new and decisive DNA evidence. But even though Adnan likely cannot demonstrate that he was wrongfully convicted, the prosecution’s case against him was troublingly thin. Even for those who think Adnan probably did plot and carry out the murder of his ex-girlfriend — and there are plenty who do — it is hard to say that there wasn’t room for some very reasonable doubts about his guilt.
Legally, there was sufficient evidence to support Adnan’s conviction; he’s not going to win any appeals there. An eye witness — Jay, Adnan’s weed dealer and casual friend — testified to his guilt, and the jury had the right to find that testimony to be credible. And Jay unquestionably had detailed knowledge about Hae’s murder. And, although Jay and Adnan were not close friends, on the day that Hae was killed Adnan had allowed Jay to borrow his car and cellphone. Later that day, after she was killed, Adnan and Jay got high together, and went to hang out at the apartment at one of Jay’s acquaintances. Jay says that after that, he and Adnan went to bury Hae’s body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.
Jay claims he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. He just knew where she was buried, how her body was positioned in the grave, and where her car had been abandoned afterwards. Because, according to Jay, Adnan had turned to Jay after killing Hae, seeking his assistance in covering up the crime. Jay told the police all this six weeks later, after the police pulled Adnan’s cell records and saw that he had called one of Jay’s friends seven times on the day of Hae’s murder. The police went to talk to that friend, Jenn, to find out why Adnan was calling her so much, and learned from Jenn that (1) Jay had been calling her, not Adnan; and (2) after picking up Jay from a mall on that day, Jay had told her that Adnan had killed Hae.
Because those cell phone records are the only evidence, aside from Jay’s testimony, that provide any support whatsoever for Adnan’s conviction — there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime — understanding what the cell records show, and do not show, is a highly significant part of the case. Provided below is a summary of the data from each of the 31 calls made to or from Adnan’s cell phone that day — including the time, who the call was to, the duration, and the cell phone tower that the call was routed through — and a summary of how that data compares to the testimony and statements given by key witnesses in the case.
A note on the significance of the location data: It should be stressed that the tower data — that is, the record of the tower and antenna that a call was routed through — provides us with a probabilistic (and not determinative) location for where each call was made or received from. The fact that any particular call may have been routed through a tower and antenna that covers a particular territory does not necessarily mean that the call was actually made or received from within that specific territory. Calls can be routed through towers other than the one they are closest to for any number of reasons, and two calls made from the exact same location within minutes of one another could end up being routed through different towers. As a result, it should be assumed that at least a few of the 31 calls made from Adnan’s phone that day were made or received outside of the marked tower’s territory.
Taken in the aggregate, however, the tower data is very useful for assessing the likely path followed by whoever had the cell phone that day. Additionally, by comparing the tower data against both the witnesses’ known events of the day, and with the movement of the cell phone as shown from the calls that occurred before and after, we can make a good prediction as to the accuracy of the tower data for each call individually.