The first episode of HBO’s new documentary, The Case Against Adnan Syed, premiered this past Sunday, once again bringing the murder conviction of the Baltimore man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend back into the headlines. Syed, the subject of the popular 2014 podcast, “Serial,” is currently serving a life sentence in prison for the 1999 death of Hae Min Lee.
The now 38-year-old Syed has long maintained his innocence, and had been holding out for a new trial, something a Maryland appeals court actually granted him last year. However, the state’s highest court ruled last week, in a 4-3 decision, to reinstate Syed’s conviction and deny him a new trial, arguing that “there was not a significant or substantial possibility that the jury would have reached a different verdict.”
While “Serial” helped to propel Syed’s case back into the courts, it remains to be seen what impact, if any, The Case Against Adnan Syed will have. HBO is airing the remaining three episodes over the next three Sundays (you can also stream it for free online with a free 7-day trial to HBO via Amazon) and critics weren’t given all of the episodes to screen ahead of time.
While you wait for the episodes to hit the air, revisit Syed’s case and read up on four other landmark true crime cases with these best-selling books that tell the story of how the quest for justice isn’t always best served in a courtroom.
1. Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial
Written by Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Syed’s who has long fought for his conviction to be overturned, this New York Times bestseller focuses on what happened after Chaudry contacted Sarah Koenig, a producer at “This American Life,” to help shed light on Syed’s story. Koenig’s subsequent investigation would turn into the critically-acclaimed podcast, “Serial,” which took home a number of awards and reached more than 500 million listeners around the world.
But for Chaudry, a Maryland-based attorney, “Serial” was only the beginning of a now years-long campaign to free her friend. In this book, she unpacks the state’s version of events and raises new questions about forensics testing, possible evidence tampering, and even introduces a potential new suspect. The book also includes letters written by Syed in prison, that he shares exclusively with Chaudry. Her goal: to prove that the friend she grew up with is hardly the monster he’s been made out to be, and to find a way to finally exonerate him once and for all. Purchase: $15.24 on Amazon.com.
2. The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes
Ava DuVernay’s upcoming series about the Central Park Five, When They See Us, premieres May 31st on Netflix. In the meantime, you can refresh your memory about one of the country’s most infamous cases of wrongful conviction, through this best-selling book by Sarah Burns.
Burns revisits the events of that fateful night on April 20th, 1989, when two passersby found the almost lifeless body of a woman in a ravine near the northern tip of Central Park. The woman, who would later be known as the “Central Park jogger,” would eventually recover from her injuries, but her horrific case and the condition in which she was found in, spawned a huge public outcry for justice. Within days, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested, and all five seemingly confessed to the crime. After a trial that attracted national media attention – and even a call for the death penalty from then-real estate mogul, Donald Trump – all five defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Over a decade later, DNA evidence would reveal convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes as the real assailant that night, freeing the men, who had spent between six and 13 years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.
Burns released this book in April 2012 and would later team up with her father, the filmmaker Ken Burns, to release a documentary about the case that fall. Purchase the book for $13.19 | Stream the documentary for $3.99 on Amazon.com.
3. Wrecking Crew: Demolishing The Case Against Steven Avery
If you’ve watched the second season of Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” you’re already familiar with Kathleen Zellner, the high-profile lawyer tasked with overturning the conviction of accused murderer, Steven Avery. Avery had beat one wrongful conviction in 2003, only to be arrested and charged with a second murder in 2005.
This book, written by USA Today investigative journalist, John Ferak, details the post-conviction strategy of Zellner, who gave Ferak unprecedented access into the (pro bono) efforts she and her law firm have undertaken to try to free Avery once again. Among the arguments presented in the book: missed evidence, an unexplored suspect, and a corrupt Wisconsin police force that may have been in over their heads, and needed someone to pin the crime on. Purchase: $16.99 on Amazon.com.
4. Life After Death
The story of the West Memphis Three captured the attention of the entire country in 1993, when three teenagers were arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas. Despite a contentious trial marked by accusations of police coercion, evidence tampering and false confessions, all three teens were sentenced to prison. Damien Echols, who prosecutors allege was the ringleader of the group, was sentenced to death.
Almost 18 years later, the convictions were overturned, thanks in part to DNA testing that cleared the three men from being at the crime scene. In this poignant memoir, Echols tells the story of how he went from living out his final days in prison to being a free man, even if “freedom” isn’t quite what he expected it to be. The book also offers Echols’ first-hand accounts of life on Death Row, from his conversations with fellow inmates, to the abuse he suffered from prison guards and wardens, to his years spent grappling with a justice system that told him it was fighting for the truth, only to disregard the facts laid out right in front of their eyes. Purchase: $11.16 on Amazon.com.
5. Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t
A new release from this past January, “Burned” explores the case of Bell, CA mother Jo Ann Parks, who was accused of setting a house fire that claimed the lives of her three kids in April of 1989. Despite calling it a terrible accident at first, investigators soon accused Parks of starting the fire, and preventing her children from escaping.
Though she steadfastly maintained her innocence, Parks was sentenced to life behind bars without parole. But more than a quarter century later, The California Innocence Project is challenging the conviction, and this book outlines their case for exonerating Parks. Among the book’s claims: outdated fire reporting practices and flawed forensics could have led investigators down a different path, and public outcry over the death of three young children could have convicted Parks even before she stepped inside the courtroom. Purchase: $18.30 on Amazon.com.
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