The first episode of HBO’s new documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed” premiered on 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. Though he had been appealing the conviction, Marilyn’s highest court ruled last week to deny Syed a new trial, arguing that “there was not a significant or substantial possibility that the jury would have reached a different verdict.”
While you wait for the remaining episodes to hit the air, we’ve rounded up five books that explore some of the most controversial true crime cases in recent memory. Available on paperback or as an audiobook download through Amazon Audible, these books track the pursuit of justice from crime scene to courthouse, and question whether the truth — like a conviction — can ever be overturned.
1. Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial
Written by Rabia Chaudry, a Maryland attorney and 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 Syed’s story was featured on “Serial.”
For Chaudry, a Maryland-based attorney, “Serial” was only the beginning of a now years-long campaign to free her friend. And while it brought international attention to the case, Chaudry says it doesn’t tell the whole story of why she’s fighting for a new trial for Syed — and why a retrial is so important.
In this book, Chaudry 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. Confessions of a Serial Alibi
While Adnan Syed was the main subject of Sarah Koenig’s “Serial,” the podcast also introduced many people for the first time to Asia McClain, whose claims that she saw Syed at the local library during the time of the alleged murder would have provided a perfect alibi for his defense.
In this book, McClain writes about how her offers to be Syed’s alibi were rejected by his first attorney, and why she thinks she could have prevented her former classmate from going to jail. She also details the criticisms and blowback she has received from court officials, the general public, and even her family and friends as a result of her story coming to light.
Though a judge recently denied Syed’s appeal for a retrial — and some of McClain’s accounts have been disputed — many credit McClain’s alibi as a reason the court approved a hearing for a retrial in the first place. Purchase: $22.76 on Amazon.com.
3. 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 31 on Netflix, but 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 in April 1989, when two passersby found the 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 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. After a trial that attracted national media attention, all five defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
Over a decade later, DNA evidence would exonerate the men, who had by that point spent between six and 13 years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.
Burns released the book in April 2012 and would later team up with her father, 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
The trial and sentencing spurred a number of protests, including impassioned responses from celebrities like Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder. It also inspired the 2014 Reese Witherspoon film, “Devil’s Knot” (stream here), which features the Oscar-winner as the mother of one of the murdered boys.
Eventually the convictions of the three men would be overturned, thanks in part to DNA testing that cleared the men from being at the scene of the crime. In this 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.
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