EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

On March 3, 1999, Coach Sye Said That Track Practice Started at 3:30 P.M. at Woodlawn

I could immediately relate to Adnan Syed when I learned he told his attorney that he recalled attending track practice on January 13, 1999 because he informed his coach on that day that he had to lead Ramadan prayers the next day. I still vividly remember four things about running cross-country in high school in Virginia Beach in the early 1990s: (1) we had our cross-country meets at Mount Trashmore; (2) a teammate got horribly lost when trying to take a shortcut during a practice at Seashore State Park; (3) the team once watched a marathon of all three (at the time) Child's Play movies; and (4) October 7, 1992.

That year, Yom Kippur ran from sundown on October 6th to sundown on October 7th. I'm not really religious,* but I used to fast on the Day of Atonement. So did my brother. The problem was that there was a cross-country meet on October 7th. Our coach didn't want us to fast and run. Being the most competitive person in the world at the time, I made the decision to eat and run on the 7th. Being the most stubborn person in the world at the time, my brother did three completely predictable things: (1) decided to fast; (2) convinced the coach to let him run anyway; and (3) posted the fastest time on the team.

October 7th is definitely one of those days I can access at will in my mental DVR. It was a brisk fall day, in the upper 50s to lower 60s, pretty much the perfect weather for a cross-country meet. I'm also guessing it was a pretty memorable day for the cross-country coach. Virginia Beach was a place where the token Jewish kid would relay to class the story of the plight of the Maccabees each December and not exactly a hotbed of Hebrewism.

Therefore, I also wasn't surprised that track coach Michael Sye had a clear memory of Adnan being on time for track practice and talking with him about leading prayers at his Mosque during the rare warm January day in Baltimore when the indoor track team could practice outside. Given that Ramadan is a month rather than a day, I'm unsurprised that Coach Sye couldn't pinpoint the day, but, given the uniqueness of the temperature, I agree with Susan Simpson that it would have been easy enough for defense counsel to pinpoint the day as January 13th (especially given that the recollections of Adnan and Coach Sye dovetailed).

Of course, if track practice started at 4:00 P.M., Adnan arriving on time would be important but not any type of case-cracking detail. On the other hand, if track practice started at 3:30 P.M., Adnan's arrival on time on January 13th would have been a huge deal. I know that Susan Simpson has argued on her blog and our podcast that practice indeed did start at 3:30 P.M., and I mostly agreed with her. That said, I was waiting for that last key piece of information to lock everything into place. Now, I've found it.

 

Susan's argument goes as follows: (1) Inez Butler testified that "[t]rack practice would start after study hall, and study hall started from 2:15 to 3:00, and they had to be at practice at least by 3:30" (2/04/00 Tr. 14-15); (2) Becky gave a statement in which she said that "track usually started before [ ] approximately 3:30;" (3) another track coach, Coach Graham, gave a statement indicating that study hall, which many athletes had to attend before practice, ran from 2:30-3:15 P.M.; and (4) Coach Sye said in a March 23rd statement to police that study hall ended at 3:15 and that he usually arrived for track practice at 3:30 P.M.

I always thought this last fact was pretty important. I know that Coach Sye didn't literally say that track practice started at 3:30 P.M., but I also know that I played a number of sports in high school: cross-country, tennis, and, yes, indoor track. My experience was always that the coach arrived with or after the students, not before. 

That said, when Sye testified at trial, he stated that "[p]ractice was every day after school, after their study hall, from [a]pproximately 4:00 to 5:30, 6" (2/23/00 Tr. 101). Additionally, Adnan's track teammate Will told Sarah Koenig last fall during Serial that track practice started at 4:00 P.M. That's pretty strong evidence that track practice did start at 4:00 P.M.

On the other hand, I have always found it interesting that both Debbie and Becky said that Hae would frequently give Adnan rides to track practice after school (before and after they broke up) because he didn't like walking. Given that Hae usually left school at around 3:00 P.M. to pick up her cousin, that would make sense if track practice started at 3:30 P.M. This would make Adnan early for track practice, but not that early. On the other hand, if track practice didn't start until 4:00 P.M., Adnan would have been dropped off at the track at about 3:05 P.M. or so and done...what exactly for the next 55 minutes? Also, everyone seemed to agree that study hall ended at 3:00 or 3:15, so why would there be a 45-60 minute gap between the end of study hall and the start of practice?

Then again, we have Sye's testimony and Will's statement.

I've noted before that I always find first statements to be the most reliable, especially when they are given somewhat contemporaneously with the event in question. Here, the event in question was the start time for indoor track practice in 1998-1999, with indoor track reason running into late February. Therefore, the most reliable statement by Coach Sye would be a statement that he gave in February or early March. Luckily for us, he gave just such a statement.

Adnan's original attorney used a private investigator, who interviewed Sye on Wednesday, March 3, 1999.

Later, Adnan's trial attorney retained Davis and took notes based upon the interview Davis had conducted with Sye:

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 9.51.18 AM 

The key note is at the bottom: It pretty clearly indicates that indoor track practice ran from 3:30-4:30 or 5:00 (or 5:30). This is consistent with Sye's statement later that month that he typically arrived at track practice at 3:30.

So why, when he testified on February 23, 2000, did Coach Sye testify that track practice started at 4:00 P.M. The 23rd was a Wednesday, either during or right after the indoor track season ended in 2000. My best guess is that indoor track practice did start at 4:00 P.M....in 2000. We also know that Adnan's track teammate Will was not a senior in 1999:

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 7.50.22 AM
Therefore, Will could be remembering that track practice started at 4:00 P.M. in 2000 but forgetting that it started half an hour earlier in 1999. It wouldn't be too surprising, given that he was recalling events that occurred 14-15 years earlier when talking to Sarah Koenig in 2014. All I know is that Coach Sye said on March 3, 1999 that practice started at 3:30 P.M.

The other interesting thing to note about the above roster is that there were only 8 members of the indoor track team at Woodlawn. I had expected a much larger team given my own experience, which would make absences somewhat less conspicuous. But that's clearly not the case with only 8 or so students on the team.

So, what's the importance of track practice starting at 3:30 P.M. and Adnan being on time on January 13, 1999? (1) It makes it highly unlikely that the 3:15 call could have been the Best Buy call; and (2) it means that Adnan didn't make The Nisha Call. 

This latter point is really the key one for me. I'm highly skeptical that the 3:32 call to Nisha was the call described by Nisha and Jay at trial for all of the reasons described by Susan Simpson in this post. That said, there was still a 3:32 call made to Nisha on January 13, 1999. And sure, it could have been a butt dial or something else, but, as someone who leans toward Adnan being innocent, this call has always bothered me because you're arguing against the most logical scenario, which is Adnan having his cell phone and calling Nisha.

But if track started at 3:30 P.M. and Adnan was on time, Adnan wasn't the one who made that call.

___________________

*It kind of comes with the territory when your parents come from different religions. In this sense, I can relate to Hae Min Lee (pages 272-273).

-CM

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2015/05/i-could-immediately-relate-to-adnan-syed-when-he-told-his-attorney-that-he-recalled-attending-track-practice-on-january-13-1.html

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Comments

Personally I'm not willing to ignore Sye's testimony he gave under oath based on a few notes you've selectively cut out of Davis' report. Can we see the rest of Davis' report on coach Sye so we can make an actual informed judgment as to what these notes mean?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 26, 2015 7:41:07 AM

Seamus: These are the only notes I could find in the file about what Coach Sye told Davis. If there anything else, I would have included it in the post.

Also, the point of this post is not to ignore Coach Sye's testimony. It's an attempt to explain why he would tell Davis in early March 1999 that track practice started at 3:30 and then testify in February 2000 that practice started at 4:00. I feel like a change in start time is the most logical explanation.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 26, 2015 8:17:34 AM

Sye told the police that Davis asked him if he remembered talking to Adnan about Ramadan on January 13; Sye told him he couldn't remember. You're saying there are no notes from Davis about that conversation?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 26, 2015 8:29:49 AM

In my experience there is a warm up period for organized sports. Do you think track practice started on the dot of 3:30? Study Hall 3:15 to change, to start running at 3:30 and if you weren't there at that time it would be noticed that you were late? My common sense says that warm up was from 3:30 to 4:00 when actual track practice began as Coach testified under oath at 4:00. Coach has no pony in this race and no reason at all to lie about start time.

But the bottom line is, Coach could not swear that Adnan was present on the 13th; He testified to a 4:00 pm start time, all the weather reports in the world are not going to change those facts.

As for the roster, is there a context for this memo? Was this the roster of the office WHS track team that would travel for meets? Or, is this a roster for every single person training and hoping to make the team?

Posted by: Badger | May 26, 2015 8:32:03 AM

correction: "official" roster. Or, a roster that was provided for a specific meet date.

Posted by: Badger | May 26, 2015 8:33:31 AM

Couldn't the "start" of practice officially be at 4 (with organized activities commencing then), but warmups and stretching begin at 3:30, with team members expected to be there for that as well? Would an athlete have been considered "late" if he had arrived at 3:45 in that case?

Posted by: Dan | May 26, 2015 8:40:57 AM

Seamus: Again, this is the only note I could find on the issue. If I find another note, I will post it.

Badger: I suppose your mileage may vary. When I did indoor track, we would all meet up with the coach, who would tell each group of people what to do at the very start of practice. And sure, Coach Sye couldn't pinpoint 1/13 by himself, but effective trial counsel could have done so based on weather/timing/having other witnesses establish that Adnan led prayers on 1/14.

Dan: That's not the way my track team practiced. I can't speak for how other teams run practice.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 26, 2015 8:44:37 AM

"All I know is that Coach Sye said on March 3, 1999 that practice started at 3:30 P.M"

What you actually know is that a lawyer wrote a note based on information given to him by his PI. The note only says 3:30-4:30. It does not say that Sye said track starts at 3:30.

This note would be consistent with Sye saying he usually arrives at 3:30, just like in his other interview. We can argue about arrival and start times, but this vague note does not add anything new.

Posted by: ofimmsl | May 26, 2015 8:46:18 AM

ofimmsl: I respect the ability of anyone to have a different interpretation. I think the clearest interpretation, however, is that Sye was saying that practice started at 3:30.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 26, 2015 8:48:22 AM

What about Davis' report to Gutierrez? We've seen reports that Davis typed out about “Sis” and Don. Do you have a similar report for the interview with Coach Sye?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 26, 2015 8:52:36 AM

Seamus: I do not.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 26, 2015 8:53:59 AM

Frankly, its pretty ridiculous to think that Adnan would have been the only one late for practice that day, and then when the coaches are asked about it shortly afterwards, this fact wouldn't stand out as unusual or suspicious.

Which means its virtually certain he must have been there and on time.

Posted by: hoovill | May 26, 2015 8:56:01 AM

As I said, we know from the police interview that Sye told Davis he couldn’t remember January 13, but he did remember a conversation on a semi-warm day. Davis also asked about Sye’s relationship with Adnan. Why do you think that wouldn’t be noted anywhere in the files?

Posted by: Seamus Duncan | May 26, 2015 9:05:46 AM

Apologies in advance if this is a double post.

The note does not state that track practice started at 3:30 because the note is without context. What question was asked? Any organized sport I've ever participated in has always set aside time for warm-up. Do you really think study hall until 3:15 to change, to start practice on the dot of 3:30? Don't you think it more probable that people were filtering in to stretch and warm up and begin practice at 4:00 pm as Coach Sye testified to under oath?

As for the Memorandum: This too appears without context. Was this a roster of kids submitted for an away track meet? Or, was is it a list of every student who attended practice and hoped to eventually make the team?

The bottom line is that Coach Sye testified under oath as both to track start time and Adnan's presence on the 13th of January which he was unable to confirm.. Alll the weather reports in the world won't change those facts. Coach is not suddenly going to recant and say he was mistaken and now he remembers Adnan was there after all at 3:30 pm sharp. And he is a reliable witness with no pony in this race. I'm not sure I see a point to this nibbling around the edges. I mean, is any of this ever going to make it into court?


Posted by: Badger | May 26, 2015 9:14:07 AM

Has Adnan ever mentioned to any of his attorneys before the trial regarding what time track practice started?

Posted by: vettiee | May 26, 2015 9:41:39 AM

I'd ask if you had additional notes from Davis about Coach Sye, but Seamus has asked this three times already and you have provided the answer three times.

Posted by: elle | May 26, 2015 9:54:57 AM

Good post. The PI note is a great find. It was also fun to hear a few of your school memories

Incidentally Professor, could you please provide Seamus Duncan with verified documentation that you were actually on a cross country team in 1992. How can he know that you are telling the truth about what you were doing on October 7 if you are not willing to show him proof? How can he make an actual informed judgment as to the reality of your high school activities?

Also, perhaps you can verify for Seamus that you are legitimately a lawyer by providing him with a copy of your law school transcripts and diploma, along with all the other documentation Seamus believes he is entitled to.

Posted by: Anna | May 26, 2015 9:59:49 AM

So, Debbie remembers seeing Hae at 3:00 pm. And Adnan used to get a ride from Hae at around 3:00 pm on her way to pick up the cousin. That day she never reached to pick up her cousin. This is leading to a logical conclusion.

Posted by: RC | May 26, 2015 10:27:51 AM

Another question. If Jay has Adnan's car and the come and get me call never happens, how does Adnan reach the track? Did he get ride from somebody else? If yes, then there is another alibi witness.

Posted by: RC | May 26, 2015 10:59:10 AM

Seamus: I don’t know why Davis’s notes about talking to Sye aren’t in the file. Maybe Gutierrez got rid of them when she created her own notes. As a counterpoint, I don’t see separate notes about Sis by Gutierrez.

Badger: I don’t know the specifics of the roster. As for practice, I participated in both cross-country and track. In neither sport did we have a warm-up before the official start of practice. Again, I can only speak to my own experience.

vettlee: In the notes taken by Adnan’s attorney and her clerk about Asia, Adnan mentions that track practice started at 3:30.

RC: I think that Debbie had the wrong day, but Debbie makes 2 statements about seeing Hae on 1/13: (1) she saw Hae at 3:00 as she was leaving to see Don at the mall; and (2) she saw Hae between 2:45 and 3:15, with “Takera” (and no one else that Debbie can remember) asking Hae for a ride and Hae turning her down because she had no time to give a ride. As for Adnan getting to the track, he didn’t need a ride to the track. It wasn’t that far; he just preferred not to walk to track.

Posted by: Colin Miller | May 26, 2015 11:13:24 AM

Colin, another excellent post. Really inspired by your tireless efforts at both fact finding and breaking down the legal issues. Thank you so much.

Posted by: thanksformutton | May 26, 2015 2:44:26 PM

Colin,
If it is found out that jay was a little more involved in Hae's murder (eg. he could have been near Hae when Adnan murdered her), can Jay be prosecuted for this given he has already been prosecuted ? (sorry not good with law terminology etc)

Posted by: ben | May 27, 2015 12:56:21 AM

One thing that has always nagged at me: Adnan had his own car, right? So why was the choice walking to track or Hae giving him a ride to track; why was driving his own car out of the question? (I'm not talking about the day Hae disappeared, but all the other days on which it was deemed normal for Hae to give him a ride.)

Posted by: Beth | May 27, 2015 6:43:48 PM

Beth: I'm guessing it's parking. You can't just pull your car down to the track or wherever practice is being held and leave it there. If Adnan had his car it's in the parking lot. Hae can drop him off on her way out and pull away. Then he only has to walk to his car after practice.

Posted by: Anon | May 27, 2015 9:42:16 PM

This doesn't seem like good news for Adnan, really, I'd always thought it was strange that Adnan did not try to draw attention to himself if he needed track practice as some sort of alibi, but he apparently did. He did something he wouldn't normally do that pinpoints the date. Just didn't work that well. Bilal remembers seeing him at the mosque because of his leading the prayers the next day as well.

Posted by: Jim | May 28, 2015 7:01:40 AM