EvidenceProf Blog

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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Episode Four of "The Case Against Adnan Syed": Lividity Redux

Tonight's fourth (and final) episode of HBO's "The Case Against Adnan Syed" touched upon a topic I've covered extensively on this blog: livor mortis/lividity:

livor mortis is the process by which a victim's blood pools into the tissues of the dependent (lowest) portion of the body after death. After 8-12 hours or so, this lividity becomes fixed, meaning that the pattern of pooled blood won't be changed even if the body is placed in a different position.

So, what did tonight's episode add to the analysis?

The investigators for the series spoke with Dr. Jan Gorniak, the Chief Medical Examiner of Fulton County and previously the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in the District of Columbia. Dr. Gorniak focused on the double diamond pressure marks found on Hae's shoulder area. Susan Simpson has written about these pressure marks on her blog:

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 7.32.25 PM

As Susan explains, "[p]ressure causes compression of the blood vessels, which results in blood being unable to settle in those areas, and therefore no discoloration occurs, even in a location that is otherwise the lowest area of the body." This is reflected in the autopsy report for Hae Min Lee, which states that "[l]ividity was present and fixed on the anterior surface of the body, except in areas exposed to pressure."

So, as Dr. Gorniak notes in the episode, Hae having fixed anterior (frontal) lividity and these double diamond pressure marks means that Hae had to be face down on top of double diamond objects for 8-12 hours after her death. Therefore, because no such objects were found in Leakin Park by where her body was buried, Hae had to be somewhere else in the 8-12 hours after her death. Given that Hae was likely not killed until 2:30pm (or later), this means that she could not have been buried in Leakin Park until at least 10:30pm:


Dr. Gorniak's analysis of the lividity supplements the analysis done by Dr. Leigh Hlavaty, who is (1) the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office in Detroit, Michigan; and (2) a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Michigan.

Like Dr. Gorniak, Dr. Hlavaty reviewed all of the forensic evidence in the case. And, like Dr. Gorniak, Dr. Hlavaty concluded that Hae Min Lee could not have been buried in Leakin Park until at least eight hours after her death:

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 7.43.28 PM

So now we have two reasons why a burial in the 7:00pm hour doesn't make sense: (1) the right side burial is inconsistent with the anterior/frontal lividity; and (2) there were no objects by Hae's body that could have caused the double diamond pressure marks. 

So, what does it all mean? Like Judge Welch, the Court of Appeals of Maryland has now concluded that the "crux" of the State's case against Adnan was the intersection between Jay's testimony about burying Hae in Leakin Park, the Leakin Park pings, and Hae's body being found in Leakin Park.

But the calls leading to the Leakin Park pings were the 7:09 and 7:16pm calls on Adnan's call log. And, in his Intercept interview, Jay says that (1) Adnan dropped him off at his house at about 6:00pm; (2) Adnan returned "several hours later, closer to midnight;" (3) they got some gardening tools; (4) they drove over to Leakin Park; and THEN (5) Adnan buried Hae. And NOW, we have two well credentialed and well respected medical examiners concluding that Hae wasn't buried until 10:30pm at the earliest.

Now, not only does Jay's story about the burial lack corroboration (due to the AT&T disclaimer); it's been dispelled. This means that the "crux" of the State's case is gone, and it also means that Jenn is gone as any type of meaningful corroboration. Jenn, of course, says that she picked up Jay at Westview Mall shortly after 8:00pm on January 13th, with Jay saying that Adnan and he just buried Hae and that he needed to wipe down the shovels (or shovel and pick). 

If there's no way that Hae was buried until 10:30pm, there's also no way that Jay told Jenn about the burial at 8:00ish. Simply put, this makes it clear that Jenn is lying or mistaken about Jay telling her about the murder/burial on January 13th. Of course, Jenn also says that Jay and she went to Kristi's place immediately after Jay (said he) wiped down the shovels, with the HBO series also revealing that the trips to Kristi's place did NOT happen on January 13th. So we now have multiple reasons why Jenn is removed as meaningful corroboration for Jay.



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With regards to no DNA in the police systems...And the unknown DNA (and unknown female DNA)...

Can Justin go the route of hospitals? Not to claim it's for a hospital, but how hospitals sometimes run DNA/blood samples/fingerprints to find a relative for an unknown patient), would/could they find a match) that way? (Or do they use the same police resources)? Can that be done from a legal perspective, or would that only be if the case were officially reopened to investigation? Thanks!
~Amanda, from NYC~

Posted by: Amanda | Mar 31, 2019 7:16:28 PM


After the disheartening fourth episode of the HBO series. How can Justin Brown get another trial for Adnan, or what legal avenues can he pursue?

Posted by: Gavin | Mar 31, 2019 7:31:17 PM

I haven't heard any mention of rigor mortis in trying to determine when Hae's body was taken to Leakin Park assuming she was killed the day she disappeared. It's already been established that the lividity set in while she was lying flat on her stomach and that would account for 8 hours that she was not moved. During that time rigor mortis starts setting in within 2 hours after death and takes another 8 hours to be fixed. If she had been moved during those 8 hours her autopsy would have shown broken bones that would have occurred because of moving/manipulating her body while it was stiff. Depending on factors like the temperature around her, it can take 18-48 for rigor to eventually disappear. So realistically she couldn't have been buried for at least 2 more days, maybe 3. Yet another inconsistency.

Posted by: Barbara Benjamin | Mar 31, 2019 10:33:25 PM

If you are going to detail diamond makings, you need to provide photos of said marks. They can be closeups, so as not to violate Hae. Until then, I’m going to go with calling BS on this. Moreover, we know by now the victim was buried face down from the waist up, as she was twisted at the middle. This makes this entire lividity argument null and void. To continue to discuss it as if it were a valid scenario is being disingenuous at best.

Posted by: Onna Mattapia | Apr 1, 2019 1:10:52 AM

Hi Colin,
It’s beyond clear that Jay’s story is vastly made up, partly from events that happened on different days. But, if in an effort to get out of trouble, Jay started retconning the events of January 13 1999 after his run-ins with the police (which could include his arrest on Jan 26, 1999, when Jenn was also in the car, up to and beyond his talking to the police on February 20/21/22), or alternatively starting around the time when the Crimestoppers tip was made (Feb 1st), is there a timeline that makes sense for when Jay would have introduced elements of his story to Jenn in order to convince her? (Specifically the business of getting rid of shovels and asking her to drive him back to the mall on a separate day to get rid of his clothes). Assuming that Jenn has a real memory of picking Jay up at the mall one evening from Adnan’s car (albeit the wrong evening), did Adnan ever remember dropping Jay off at the mall for Jenn to pick up on some unspecified evening, which the investigators later led everyone to think had happened on the 13th?

Posted by: Pablo | Apr 1, 2019 4:27:17 AM

Did the ME last night say something about the bruising to Hae's head possibly being post mortem?

Posted by: Kate | Apr 1, 2019 4:52:12 AM

Amanda: I don’t think Justin has the power to do anything with the DNA at the moment.

Gavin: (1) motion to reconsider with the Court of Appeals of Maryland; (2) cert petition to the Supreme Court; (3) motion to reopen based on ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel; (4) petition for writ of actual innocence in Maryland; (5) federal habeas petition bassed on Schlup actual innocence gateway.

Barbara Benjamin: I asked Dr. Hlavaty about this, and she’s pretty convinced that Hae was buried between 8-24 hours after death: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/files/dr.-hlavaty-affidavit.pdf (Section E)

Onna Mattapia: Rabia has posted one photo on Twitter (https://twitter.com/rabiasquared/status/992757289827397633) and they showed another on the HBO show last night. These photos led to a conclusion that Hae wasn’t buried in Leakin Park until at least 10:30pm by the Chief Medical Examiner of Fulton County and previously the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in the District of Columbia.

What we know about burial position is that the lower half of Hae’s body was basically at a 90 degree (perpendicular) angle to the ground and the upper half of her body was twisted and more diagonal to the ground. After reviewing all of the photos, Dr. Hlavaty concluded that this position was inconsistent with the lividity and that Hae couldn’t have been buried until at least 8 hours after death: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/files/dr.-hlavaty-affidavit.pdf (paragraphs 32-33).

Pablo: No idea. I tend to think that Jay’s stories may have started soon after Jay was arrested on the disorderly conduct charge in late January.

Kate: She said that the bruising on the head may have been postmortem, but I’m not sure how decisive she was in that opinion.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Apr 1, 2019 6:11:21 AM

If Hae was buried 8-24 hours after death by the killer in Leakin Park, what reason would the police have to get Alonzo Sellers to make up his story about finding the body? I’ve always though the police moved the body to Leakin Park to match cell tower pings and the story they fed
to Jay. Sellers’ doesn’t seem to have found the body like stated, but if the police were actually the ones to find the body, why wouldn’t they have just said that they discovered it in their search?

Posted by: Kelli | Apr 1, 2019 12:36:41 PM

Why didn't the lividity evidence completely disprove the State's timeline of events during the trial?

Posted by: Margaret | Apr 1, 2019 12:48:53 PM

Would it be at all possible... and this may be a dumb question... that Hae’s body was actually left somewhere different or somehow obtained by Mr. S who put her face down in his truck on top of one of those “Double diamond” tools mentioned in the show?

Posted by: Alicia | Apr 1, 2019 7:22:28 PM

Alicia I think she would have had to be on the double diamond pattern almost immediately after death for that pattern to appear in that manner.
People are saying truck in regards to Mr S, I'm wondering if we know exactly what he was driving? Was it a truck, a work van, a truck with a canopy? Could it have reasonable had a body in it laying flat on those double diamonds and hiding for those 8 hours?

Posted by: Sarah | Apr 2, 2019 11:17:42 AM

That is true. I actually am not certain what he was driving. I feel like I heard at some point it was a truck but maybe I’m misremembering...I’m thinking if it was a work truck he could have had tarp etc in the back that he could have used to cover the bed of the truck if she were in there...

Posted by: Alicia | Apr 2, 2019 6:09:17 PM

Lividity want used effectively by Gutierrez because she had previous case history of not understanding lividity evidence. It’s another example of her inability to effectively do her job.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 3, 2019 4:32:27 AM


For those who are arguing that lividity isn’t valid based on the burial position, which you’ve already argued, wouldn’t it be safe to say that unless the killer took the time to completely smooth out the bottom of the ditch they used as burial, there would have likely been rocks, and sticks and a whole lot of other debris in that hole that would have left pattern markings like the double diamond patterns. To your knowledge are there any other unexplained markings in the lividity?

Also if lividity were evenly distributed it would indicate she was laying flat and not at any angles. When your angled into something your body has multiple low points. Also, I’d imagine if there was any sloping at all to how she was positioned the lividity wouldnhave been lower in her body.

Just a few thoughts, to dispel the erroneous thoughts that people have about body position and whether or not it formed where she was buried.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 3, 2019 4:41:13 AM

Was Hae’s family investigated? Was her home searched? I’ve searched for info on this and can’t find anything. If I’ve missed something, does someone have a link? Thanks.

Posted by: Melanie | Apr 5, 2019 8:33:08 AM

To all the people who continue to argue that the lividity “Nuh uh, was too!” consistent with the burial position (and with SNARK no less — love you so much onomatopoeia), I challenge you to interrogate your own thought process for a second here.

Consider that you are essentially accusing Colin of lying, specifically (I presume you’re thought process would be, though correct me if I’m wrong) because you believe firmly that the Syed conviction is valid and that these “murderer’s activist friends” are using the fact that the burial photos are (at least to the best of your working knowledge) not publicly available to contradict them.

I invite those who feel this is not just possible but actually the most likely possibility to now add in the opinions of the multiple professional medical examiners who have publicly confirmed this conclusion. (In reality of course, the conclusion first came from these medical examiners; I mean come on seriously? where else would Colin have concluded this from, he’s a responsible thinker and obviously not an expert himself, but I digress; I do imagine that in your thought process, he was the original creator of the lie/argument).

Ok now, please sincerely and realistically compare YOUR snarky armchair expertise against not just Colin, but against these professional medical examiners who actually do this for a living.

I can only hope that as you mash out your next reply, you keep this in mind.

Posted by: Paul | Apr 5, 2019 8:55:10 PM

So what if the burial occurred later? So what if the body was laid out somewhere for some time? It does not affect whether Adnan is guilty or innocent. Attacking the State's view of what happened maybe fine in a court of law but it is a smokescreen designed to hide the real truth.

Posted by: David Dredge | Apr 26, 2019 11:23:08 AM

Has anyone looked into possible construction going on at the mall where Don was the day of the 13th. Crews usually start early and leave early, by 3 pm in my experiences. If the marks are from concrete shoe's it would have to be more than just one shoe to imprint in this way. So who has more than just one or two... construction sites. That could connect Don to a possible worksite collection of used shoe's and an empty place to conceal her body flat and undisturbed while the active area's of the mall empty and close for the night. Perhaps the transfer and burial after the mall closes; That would be reasonably consistent with the lividity and rigor timelines and why he did not return a call to the police till 130 am on the 14th. I would like to know how long the construction of the mall and any store renovations inside the mall not just the lenscrafters might have been in progress during that time.

Posted by: Tabatha O'Connor | Oct 22, 2019 12:02:17 AM

Love the post! But let’s consider a moment (whether you believe it or not) that Jay did it or was involved and buried the body. We now know that this was after 11 pm because that’s what the science is telling us.

But we can also be fairly sure that the phone was in Leakin Park for some time around 7-7.30 pm. Perhaps half an hour. I don’t believe that the location data for this period is inaccurate, check this out if you’ve not seen it. https://www.reddit.com/r/serialpodcast/comments/3ouu66/unreliability_of_incoming_calls_explained_and/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=ios_app&utm_name=iossmf

So what was Jay, or Adnan doing after dark in the woods in the middle of winter? Isn’t it possible that whoever had the phone was scoping out a place to bury the body, or perhaps started to bury it but felt it was too risky with all the cars around and vowed to return? Isn’t that possible?

If so, the lividity doesn’t mean much at all and the state’s timeline on this particular part of the night could still be more or less accurate. It just misses off that the burial was completed later.

To me that’s plausible because it fits the lividity, the cell tower pings and Jenn’s account, which has Jay dumping his clothes the following day.

The diamond shapes are a real mystery. We know the body wasn’t kept in the car for any length of time, no trunk storage would be consistent with the lividity. So perhaps she was kept in a garage or a side alleyway until nightfall and then buried. Perhaps it was Jay’s friend Patrick that kept the body for him until it was dark and quiet enough to bury it.

Posted by: Christian Berry | Aug 5, 2020 1:45:16 PM

Christian in your scenario where was the body kept flat for 8 hours?

Posted by: David | Sep 22, 2020 11:58:21 PM

Hi! Just a couple questions. First, does anyone know anywhere that mentioned her stomach contents when they did the autopsy? I looked at the online report and didn't see anything mentioned about stomach contents, and if she was killed quickly and she did stop for a snack then she should have had something, somewhere in her digestive tract. Second, was her family investigated including any extended family or her communityy members? Just asking because of all of the "honor" killings done in some of the cultures, and if she was dating around and especially with an older guy and/or a male not of her race/culture, wanting to stay overnight with him, and just some of the way the older generations of these cultures look at typical american teenager behavior. Thanks!

Posted by: Kacee | Jan 8, 2021 11:24:50 PM

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