How does being a pop culture phenomenon work out for alleged and/or convicted murderers? It depends!
For Adnan Syed, subject of the smash-hit podcast Serial, renewed public interest in his case could work in his favor. Syed, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999 when she was a senior in high school, is currently serving a life sentence. But on Wednesday, Syed was back in court for a hearing. He hopes to get a second trial. According to NPR’s Morning Edition, the hearing will introduce new evidence about Syed’s alibi — Asia McClain, a name Serial listeners will recognize, is a key witness — and raise questions about whether the cellphone data used in the first trial, which connected Syed to the place where Lee was buried, was really reliable.
For Robert Durst, subject of the HBO docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst allowing all the world to hear him calmly describe the process by which he chopped up his neighbor’s corpse was maybe not the swiftest PR move he’d ever made. After the series finale, Durst was arrested on a gun charge in New Orleans, charged with the murder of Susan Berman in Los Angeles, and sued for $100 million by the family of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, who disappeared under mysterious, not-especially-flattering-to-Durst circumstances. And on Wednesday, Durst pleaded guilty to illegally possessing a .38 caliber revolver. (Durst, a convicted felon, is not allowed to possess a firearm.) He will be sentenced to 85 months in federal prison.
Next up for Durst: Facing that murder charge in Los Angeles. The prosecution must arraign Durst by August 18.
The massively successful Serial — it was the most popular podcast of all time — was anchored by This American Life reporter Sarah Koenig and introduced, each week, by a little girl who never did quite figure out how to pronounce Mailchimp (“Mail… kimp?”). A significant segment of fans listening to the weekly installments became convinced that Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, wasn’t Lee’s killer.
Syed claims that he was failed by his “ineffective” legal counsel during his original trial. His attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, neglected to ask McClain to testify. Just a year after representing Syed, Gutierrez was disbarred and voluntarily resigned from the bar. As the Sun reported, “Clients had complained that Gutierrez did not follow their instructions and lied to them about their cases. Investigators also found that clients’ money in a trust account had gone missing. She did not fight the allegations.”
McClain sent letters to Syed in jail after he was arrested; in her writing, she said that she had seen him at the library on the day Lee was allegedly killed. Last year, McClain told The Baltimore Sun that she has “no doubt” about that fact. Syed says that Guiterrez didn’t talk to McClain at all and simply told him that she “looked into it and nothing came out of it.”
Syed has a new defense attorney, C. Justin Brown, who told Morning Edition that he is “confident” Syed can win a new trial. (No word yet on whether we can ever know, for sure, if there was a pay phone at that Best Buy.) Syed requested a new trial before, most recently in 2012, and was denied.
Syed has nothing to lose by inviting more attention and scrutiny to his case. Durst, however, was as free as a person can be while living with the knowledge that he once stuffed a dead man’s torso into a suitcase and chucked it into Galveston Bay, until less than a day after The Jinx finale aired.
In that episode’s chilling, last moments, Durst, long believed to have been responsible for Kathleen’s disappearance, murmured to himself while his mic was still hot, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Within hours, Durst was arrested in New Orleans on a first degree murder warrant from L.A. And within hours of that arrest, Louisiana officials rebooked Durst on new weapons charges — the charge for which, on Wednesday, he pleaded guilty.
The timing was so Hollywood-perfect that the LAPD Deputy Chief, Kirk Albanese, had to assure the L.A. Times that the investigation was not based on the HBO series.