EvidenceProf Blog

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

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Episode One of "The Case Against Adnan Syed": Debbie and Donnie

Tonight was the premiere of the first episode of "The Case Against Adnan Syed" on HBO. For me, the biggest revelation was that Don made romantic advances on Debbie. In this post, I will break down the importance of this revelation.

First, let's orient ourselves. Don was Hae's co-worker at LensCrafters and the boyfriend of Hae Min Lee after she broke up with Adnan Syed. Debbie was one of Hae's best friends (the other being Aisha). It was also believed in the early days of the investigation into Hae's disappearance that Debbie was the last innocent person to see Hae alive.

On January 28th, Detective O'Shea interviewed Debbie, who told him that

Debbie said she saw Hae at approximately 1500 hours on 01/13/99. Hae was by herself and she was inside the school near the gym. Hae told Debbie that she was going to see Donald at the mall. Debbie did not see Hae leave the school.

Around this same time, Debbie was conducting her own investigation. As Debbie noted in her March 26th interview, she thought that Don was hiding Hae, so she concocted a scheme to uncover the truth:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 5.58.03 PM

Debbie and Don eventually had the phone call that Don wanted. As Debbie confirmed on the first episode of the HBO series, this Q&A was not a typo:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.00.24 PM

Debbie entered this seven hour conversation thinking that Don was hiding Hae. During the call, Don told her that Adnan was probably the guilty party and convinced her to change her opinion:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.02.24 PM

This information was obviously helpful to Adnan's trial attorney in presenting Don as an alternate suspect and calling into question Debbie's shifting story. But this new information casts everything into an entirely new light. If we believe Debbie, Hae's boyfriend was putting the moves on her -- one of Hae's best friends -- when Hae was missing and possibly dead...during a seven hour phone call that led her to change her opinion on Don's guilt. And, if we believe Debbie, this wasn't a one-off conversation; instead, Don pursued a relationship and they actually met in person before she told he that she wasn't romantically interested in him.

I'm not going to get into Don as an alternate suspect because that's a rabbit hole I simply haven't explored yet. But I do know that Debbie was an essential witness at trial. In the aforementioned March 26th interview, she said she saw Adnan outside the guidance counselor's office at 2:45pm on the day Hae disappeared:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.15.54 PM

At trial 1, she remembered making this statement:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.16.44 PM

Then, at trial 2, about a month later, she testified that she did not remember making this statement:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.17.50 PM

Debbie's memory of seeing Hae after school also changed between her January 28th statement and her March 26th statement. As noted, in her January 28th statement, Debbie said Hae was alone and said she was going to see Don. In her March 26th statement, Debbie and Hae were with their friend "Takera" after school:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.20.49 PM

If the defense knew that Debbie and Don had a close relationship, with Don even pursuing (or pretending to pursue) a romantic relationship, it puts Debbie's changing stories in a different light and opens up new avenues of investigation and interrogation.

Moreover, I wonder whether the State was aware of this information. We have the cover sheet for Debbie's March 2nd police interview, but no notes or transcript from that interview:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 6.26.23 PM

What did Debbie say during this interview? Did she mention Don's romantic interest in her? Hopefully, one day we find out. Also, hopefully one day (maybe on the HBO series), we find out the meaning of this undated police note, which could change everything we know once again:

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 7.52.46 PM



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Mr. Miller- please note there is as slight error, “Debbie entered this seven hour conversation thinking that Don was hiding Debbie.“ s/b Hae.

Your blog is fantastic. Keep up the fight.

Posted by: Carolina | Mar 10, 2019 7:54:14 PM

Wasn’t Debbie supposed to have a photographic memory? Feels like that wouldn’t cause multiple changes in her story. Right?

Posted by: G | Mar 10, 2019 8:13:33 PM

The most shocking revelation from this episode was finding out that Hae was sexually abused as a child. I think this is something that needs to be further investigated. Perhaps the family member who molested her is her murderer and did it out of fear of facing the consequences to his actions . Maybe he found out that she was telling people about what happened to her . Following this whole scenario I would completely dismiss Jay and Jen. I think their entire stories, including the whereabouts of the car, was fed to them by the police in order to have a full proof case against Adnan.

Posted by: Nicole Massa | Mar 10, 2019 8:40:16 PM

Is it possible the person who wrote that note mis-heard Debbie saying Don "hit on" her as just Don "hit" her?

Posted by: Bob | Mar 10, 2019 10:04:41 PM

Thanks for the review, Colin. This all seems so hopeless now, unless a "rabbit hole" like Don unearths the real killer. Any reason to be less pessimistic than this?

Posted by: Jim | Mar 11, 2019 5:00:32 AM

Hey! Under the convo between Debbie and Macgillivary and the 7 hour phone call, you inserted Debbies name instead of Hae. Just wanted to point that out since there’s so many people involved in the story and a bunch of newly interested are hopefully reading! Otherwise, solid post. I’m FASCINATED by all this info on Debbie and have always thought Don was highly suspect! Can’t wait for next week!

Posted by: Maria | Mar 11, 2019 5:04:30 AM

Also, how is it not a bigger issue, that Hae and Don were supposed to meet up, yet he never called her...ever again

Posted by: Rayna | Mar 11, 2019 6:08:48 AM

Debbie has always seemed a little too happy and a little too insinuating. 7 hours? We already knew about that but why would she hold a conversation for this long?? I believe she had a crush on Don. Why would she believe him over Adnan?

Posted by: Brenda | Mar 11, 2019 10:17:39 AM

Man oh man. First, how much do I dislike Thiru for continuing this farce of a conviction. But to get on with what I took away from episode one-

How much Law and Order has Debbie watched? Her comment about how she always knew it had to be someone close to Hae because with strangulation it's always personal? Is it me, or is this not really anything the average 17 year old would be thinking?

Second, the biggest revelation to me(and if it's been said before somewhere I missed it) is that the tip line caller was a younger Asian male, probably Korean. Say whaaaat? Is there a young Asian male in Adnan's circle that I missed? I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist but this made me think "was the tip line caller wanting to throw suspicion off themselves? honor killing?" I'm crazy but this was my immediate thought.

Now I'm off to listen to the Undisclosed episode about this episode.

Posted by: Michelle | Mar 11, 2019 12:51:05 PM

After discussing this episode with my girlfriend, we really picked up on the bombshell of Hae having been sexually assaulted(which to me, deserves serious investigation and is so horrifying and terribly, terribly tragic), and my girlfriend's first thought was, "why was Hae so upset at home?" She never had friends over, and she talked of her own life as "a bitch." So many are quick to say that these are the musings of a dramatic teenager in a dramatic world of high school; but you have to think that maybe, just maybe, it's not so dramatic. Maybe her abuser was at home? What of her Uncle? In the diary, she talks of being "locked away" at that apartment above the store. Anyone else think that's weird? Seeing this documentary made all this so much more real to me, and now, I'm wondering if a family member of Hae's is invovled. The "asian male" calling, leading to Adnan. Maybe the family knew of Adnan, knew of Don, and they were disturbed. Poor Hae wanted freedom, she wanted to be gone. I think following Hae's truths, and her words, will lead us to the truth.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 11, 2019 1:57:45 PM

Debbie is super suspect. She did almost brag about a photographic memory (as the other person in this post already wrote) then couldnt remember anything after meeting Don later? Seems she was making weird gestures with her head and smiling inappropriately in the courtroom footage too. Then she's making sure people understand how hard Don came on to her romantically saying she led him on but made sure he knew it was never gonna happen. How do you do those two thing simultaneously?

Posted by: Whit | Mar 11, 2019 9:45:45 PM

Since you’re discussing Don and how he was overlooked during the investigation, could you comment on the article by the WSJ where the investigators hired by the production revealed that Don’s time card wasn’t doctored? In general, the article made the entire investigation sound like a waste of time, which left me a bit hopeless, and made me also question how this article was published now, rather than after the show finished airing. You’d think they would be at least advised to not talk about what they found or not found, to avoid spoiling any aspect of the documentary series. The entire thing left me a bit baffled.

Posted by: Manu | Mar 13, 2019 6:24:25 AM

Debbie's credibility as a witness is questionable. I rewatched her appearance on Grace v Abrams and she stands by seeing Adnan at 2:45 and Hae 30 minutes later !?

Posted by: Lori Clair | Mar 13, 2019 7:36:32 AM

Carolina: Thanks.

G: Yes, that photographic memory comment was odd.

Bob: That could be a possibility.

Jim: Adnan has a pretty clear claim for ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel.

Maria: Thanks.

Rayna: It’s a big issue but not new. Debbie stated this in her first police interview.

Michelle: Right. Lots of questions about the anonymous calls.

Manu: My biggest take home from the article is that they say that “evidence we developed undermined the state’s official timeline of the crime.” That would be huge. Beyond that, the helicopter pilot’s initial statement would also be huge, and the lack of documentation neither confirms nor dispels his initial statement. I’d love to know more about exactly how much he walked back his initial statement, but this still gives us reason to believe that car was discovered earlier than claimed.

With regard to Sis, we have three options: (1) she has a terrible memory; (2) she lying; or (3) Adnan’s PI created a fake memo of an interview with her. I’ll go with (1). She didn’t remember Jay by name or description. It would have been nice if she did remember Jay, but we still have the PI’s memo.

With regard to Don, I’ve noted several times that I’ve never gone down the Don rabbit hole. That said, they note that the time card couldn’t be altered retroactively without leaving a trace. I’ll first note that in Susan’s initial post on this, she did note an abnormality with the Hunt Valley time card:


“Intriguingly, and in contrast to every other timecard produced by LensCrafters, Don was credited for working 4 hours on Saturday, despite time entries showing he had only clocked in for 3 hours and 48 minutes.”

Also, from their statement, I don’t know if they’re referring to changes made after the pay period closes or any changes made after the day in question. I’ll be interested to see their report.

My only point of contention is (possibly) the NCIC searches. Yes, it’s a log showing a when and where of officers checking the NCIC database, but I don’t know if/how they were able to determine whether the officers were checking to see if the car had turned up somewhere else. I’ve talked to former police who used the NCIC database, and they said the records could just as easily be the officers seeing the plates in the field and running them. Again, I’d like to see the report on this.

Beyond that, I know that they worked on other important things, at least some of which I think will make the show.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 13, 2019 7:36:35 AM

Is there somewhere that isn't behind a pay wall that we can get the information referenced in Manu's post, sounds like a crazy amount of detail...

Posted by: Robert | Mar 13, 2019 11:36:06 AM

Robert: If you go on the Serial Reddit, the text of the article has been posted.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 13, 2019 1:26:34 PM

I don't understand how they concluded that the timecards edits didn't "leave a trace" ?? It seems there were several traces left behind showing the change.

Posted by: Paul | Mar 13, 2019 1:30:04 PM

Paul: What's interesting is that they don't actually say that. They say "[i]t was, we concluded, impossible to adjust the computerized timecard retroactively without leaving a trace." First, they don't say that no trace was left on the Hunt Valley time card (and, as noted, Susan Simpson has identified something that could be called a "trace"). And, second, they don't say what they mean by the word "retroactively."

I'll be very interested to see what exactly they did/concluded in the report on this issue as well as others.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 13, 2019 1:36:07 PM

This might not be a big deal but do we know who Debbie mentioned to Don that she was looking for when she first emailed him? It just seems weird that she randomly thought of a name and started emailing him.

Posted by: Stephanie | Mar 13, 2019 1:55:46 PM

You all do realize that the documentary--like so much on television--is EDITED...meaning not everything that was said aired, right? Editing allows for a person's statements to be presented out of order or otherwise be misrepresented/presented out of context. This applies to both the interviewer and those interviewed.

Probably, none of you have ever experienced a truly traumatic life event, such as the one that Hae's family and friends experienced. If so, you'd recognize quite easily that trauma can cause a person to mentally displace related events and experiences. In that regard, memory actually has a diminished relationship to recollection.

Also, not all, but A LOT of people have photographic memories. This is not at all an anomaly. Perhaps the statement in the documentary related to a completely benign conversation that was likely edited.

Finally, remember that on the witness stand, recalling the making of a statement about an event is not the same as recalling the event itself. Perhaps both the defense and the prosecution did an injustice by not differentiating between the two when questioning the witnesses. This may be far more significant that you know...

Posted by: Gabbi | Mar 14, 2019 7:54:13 PM

1. Picking up on Bob’s point re: Debbie’s interview: Debbie may have actually said that Don “hit on” her and the interviewer could have misinterpreted (rather than misheard) that as Don hitting her.
2. Also, regarding that same note, do we know what kind of interactions Don had with Hae’s friends before she was murdered? The note would seem to indicate that they met at least once, formed a negative opinion of him and discussed it amongst themselves, or at least with Debbie.

Posted by: Allyn | Mar 14, 2019 9:58:51 PM

Stephanie: Not sure.

Gabbi: You note that “[i]f so, you'd recognize quite easily that trauma can cause a person to mentally displace related events and experiences.” I 100% agree, and this has been the focus of Undisclosed since Episode One when I talked about confabulation.

Allyn: (1) That’s a possibility. (2) Not sure.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Mar 15, 2019 5:52:44 AM

Mac Gillivary reports "Debbie said she saw Hae at approximately 1500 hours on 01/13/99" .. and that story remains the same in the documentary. Indicating she knew Hae was going to see Don at the mall.

Later she says that Hae had indicated that she couldn't give anybody a ride because she had to pick up her cousin at 3:00PM.

Also presumably Debbie had practice after school. Has anyone looked at what time practice normally started?

Hard to imagine how she saw Hae at 3, when Hae had to pick up her cousins around 3.

And Don assaulted Debbie according to police notes?? Was this a lie she told because she was getting romantic with Don or was she actually assaulted and doesn't want to admit it?

Posted by: James Simon | Apr 10, 2019 5:30:26 AM

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