Why Adnan Syed's Conviction 'All Revolves Around' Jay Wilds' Testimony

Jay Wilds and Adnan Syed may not have been close, but Wilds' witness testimony would ultimately be key to convicting Syed of Hae Min Lee's murder.

By Ethan Harfenist

Jay Wilds and Adnan Syed were reportedly not close friends —  but the Woodlawn High School seniors’ fates would eventually become inextricably linked through a brutal Jan. 1999 murder case, when Syed was arrested and ultimately convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Even though he and Syed were allegedly just acquaintances, Wilds’ police interviews and witness testimony would ultimately be key to convicting Syed — despite his story’s inconsistencies and contradictions.

Wilds' shaky testimony was first highlighted in “Serial,” the 2014 podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig that brought Syed’s case back into the public eye. Koenig noted then that despite there being no physical evidence linking Syed to Hae’s murder, Wilds’ police interviews provided the groundwork for a conviction. Now, Wilds' story is under the microscope again with HBO's new docu-series "The Case Against Adnan Syed," which digs further into Lee's murder and Syed's supposed role in it.

“Jay is the center of gravity in this case. It all revolves around Jay," lawyer and Syed family friend Rabia Chaudry says in episode two of “The Case Against Adnan Syed." "Jay told the story that convicted Adnan.”

Wilds, who gave police multiple interviews and testified in court, was first questioned on Feb. 28, 1999, just hours before police arrested Syed on suspicion of Lee’s murder. Lee had disappeared on Jan. 13, and almost a month later, on Feb. 9, her body was found by a passerby in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Three days later, Baltimore Police received an anonymous tip that Syed was responsible for the murder. 

Here’s a basic timeline of the events of Jan. 13, according to Wilds’ first sit-down with police on Feb. 28, 1999:

He gets a call from Syed around 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 13; an hour later, Syed arrives at Wilds’ house in his car and they both go to Baltimore’s Westview Mall, where Syed tells Wilds he’s going to kill Hae because he’s angry about their breakup; at 12:30 p.m., Wilds drops off Syed at school and keeps his car; at 3:40 p.m., Syed tells Wilds to meet him at a “strip” off Edmonton Ave., and 20 minutes later Syed shows Wilds Hae’s dead body in the trunk of her own car.

Then, at 4:15 they drop off Hae’s car at 1-70 Park and Ride; Wilds drops Syed off at track practice afterward, and then at 6:45 p.m. Syed calls Wilds on the cellphone to pick him up; at 7:15 p.m., after eating McDonald’s and Syed receiving a phone call from police looking for Hae, they go to Wilds’ house to get a shovel and pick, return to Hae’s car, and then bury Hae’s body in Leakin Park.

But this account somewhat differs from Jay’s second police interview, as well as his court testimony. “The story Jay told police had problems, because it kept changing from telling to telling,” Koenig says in the first episode of “Serial.” “But they were able to bolster the main plot points using cell records from Adnan’s phone.”

Others think the inconsistencies point toward something else — Chaudry says in the documentary that she thinks “the police were helping [Wilds] craft the story.”

For instance, during one of his police interviews highlighted in “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” an officer asks Wilds, “You’re sure it’s the 13th because we told you got these calls on the 13th?” Jay responds in the affirmative.

"The Case Against Adnan Syed" also notes that Wilds contradicted himself on the witness stand when it came to the story he told police about helping Syed dig the hole: At first, he said he met Syed at a mall parking lot and then went to Leakin Park to bury the body, but later, Wilds said Syed showed him Lee’s corpse in a Best Buy parking lot.

“At trial, he said Adnan killed Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy, and then he also said he helped Adnan bury her in Leakin Park,” Chaudry notes during the episode. “The thing is that the story Jay told at trial is not the same story Jay told police the first time." 

But Wilds’ testimony, even though inconsistent, was corroborated by cellphone records as well as his friend Jennifer Pusateri’s testimony (at least, at first): Pusateri’s initial statement to the cops said that she received a call from Wilds on Syed’s cell; a later statement from her included a bit about Wilds confessing to her that he helped Syed bury Lee. Additionally, since Syed provided no real alibi, Wilds’ testimony was convincing enough that it allowed prosecutors to nail Syed for the murder.

Years later, now that Wilds’ testimony has come under fire, even Pusateri doubts his version of events.

“Jay obviously picks and chooses what he tells, and at this point it’s created such a mess,” she says in the documentary.

Even documentary director Amy Berg openly admitted to questioning Wilds’ narrative of the events in the case after listening to “Serial.”

“The whole Jay story was so confusing. ‘Dissatisfying’ is the best word I can use for that,” she said in an interview with Vulture. “Clearly Sarah Koenig was leaning towards Adnan’s innocence and she got sidetracked by Jay a little bit, too. I was not sure. There was enough doubt for me to want to give this a real close look…”

But Wilds, who is not heard from outside of taped testimony in either “Serial” or the HBO documentary, stood by what he told police in a three-part interview with The Intercept in 2014 following the podcast airing.

He also claimed that he felt like Koenig, whose account challenges his, tried to pressure him into giving an interview and created “an evil archetype” of him.

“It helped fan the flames of this story that people had already moved on from,” Wilds told The Intercept.

Meanwhile, Maryland's highest court denied a new trial for Syed earlier this month, according to The Associated Press.

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