Golf Course Management

MAY 2019

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28 GOLF COURSE MANAGEMENT 05.19 Turfgrass and the case against Adnan Syed Last spring, I got a phone call from a British TV producer saying he needed the expertise of a turfgrass physiologist concerning a mur - der that had occurred in the Baltimore area in 1999. Turfgrass professors occasionally receive unsolicited (and sometimes wacky) calls for advice, so I was immediately on guard. When asked, the producer told me that Joe Roberts, Ph.D., turfgrass pathologist at the University of Maryland, had given him my name, as the producer needed a turf physiologist, not a pa - thologist. (anks, Joe!) After I'd signed a nondisclosure agreement, the producer told me only the details of the case that he needed help with. He purposely did not tell me the name of the case or that it had been the subject of the enormously popu - lar 2014 podcast "Serial" (250 million down- loads). e case was the murder of 19-year-old Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed is now serving a life sentence for her homi - cide. e project was a documentary series for HBO titled "e Case Against Adnan Syed." Given that I had signed the NDA, I worked on the case without Googling it to find the details. is allowed me to consult with objec - tivity, which I now appreciate given the high- profile nature of the case. Here's what I was told: We need your help trying to determine how long the victim's car was parked in a grassy lot behind some row houses in Baltimore. e murder took place on Jan. 13, 1999, allegedly in the victim's car. e car was found Feb. 28, 1999. e filmmak - ers asked: Based on the provided weather data and the photo taken Feb. 28, 1999 (above), is it your professional opinion that the car could have been in that spot for the entire 46 days? I visited the grassy lot in June (episode 2 of the HBO series) and identified the main spe - cies in the area where the car was found: pe- rennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, tall fes- cue, white clover, broadleaf plantain, prostrate knotweed, common bermudagrass and dal - lisgrass. I dug up representative samples and grew them in trays in a growth chamber at the University of Delaware under low light (100 ┬Ámol/square meter/day, 10-hour day length) at the average high and low temperatures for each day. e idea was to get an initial determina - tion of how many days the identified species would remain green. e photo indicates an abundance of green grass under the trunk area of the victim's car (a silver Nissan Sentra), but only brown grass under the black car next to it. e black car had been in that spot far lon - ger than 46 days. If the grass under the Sentra turned brown in less than 46 days, this would provide evidence that the car had been moved to that location after the day of the murder, which would contradict a key witness's state - ment and the prosecution's theory that Syed had put the car there on the day of the murder. In my simulation, all the cool-season spe - cies remained mostly green for 46 days, while the warm-season species turned brown. Tem - peratures in the area in January-February 1999 were mild, never staying below 32 F for consecutive days until Feb. 22 and 23. ese cool (but not frozen) conditions resulted in very low but sustained respiration and photo - synthesis of the cool-season species. ese results were not what the filmmakers were looking for; they wanted evidence that the car had been moved to the location a few days after Jan. 13. erefore, we looked closely at the photo and noticed green leaf detritus (turf) Erik H. Ervin, Ph.D. Erik Ervin, Ph.D., tested turfgrass growing under the victim's vehicle to determine whether the car had been moved to that location the day of the murder. Photo courtesy of Erik Ervin in the tread of the back-left tire of the Sen- tra, while the tread on the black car was com- pletely clean (episode 4 of the series). If de- tached cool-season grass leaves could remain somewhat green under the simulated weather conditions for fewer than 46 days, this would again provide some evidence that the car was moved to this location after Jan. 13. I placed four detached blades each of Ken - tucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue in plastic petri plates (replicated three times) and put them under the simulated temperature and light conditions used in the previous trial. ey were also put through wetting and drying cycles per the reported rainfall days. Distinct, but gradual, loss of color (chlorophyll) was noted between days 33 and 46. is was enough for me to speculate that the car could have been moved to that lo - cation after Jan. 13, but I could not be certain. Inability to be conclusive is a definite theme of the HBO docuseries. Now that I have listened to the "Serial" podcast and watched all four episodes of the series, it is ap - parent to me that there is enough information to cast reasonable doubt on Syed's conviction. He should at least get another jury trial. Many who watch the docuseries will note how little effort went into gathering and processing fo - rensic evidence for his conviction. Syed and his family deserve a deeper dive into the foren - sic evidence, while Hae Min Lee's family de- serves a more conclusive closure to her murder. Erik H. Ervin is chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and a professor of turfgrass and horticultural systems at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del.

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