On February 9, 1999, the body of a high-school student, Hae Min Lee, who had been reported missing on January 13, was found in a wooded park in Baltimore, Maryland, the victim of a manual strangulation. Just a few weeks later, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, was taken into custody and charged with Lee’s murder.
Lee’s murder didn’t make national news until 2014, more than 15 years after Syed’s trial, when a journalist and producer for the This American Life podcast told the story in a spinoff. Seemingly overnight, millions of people downloaded the new podcast. And many fans became emotionally invested in the case, including amateur sleuths and legal professionals who wanted to dig deeper into the mystery. In 2018, a judge granted a new trial to the person who was ultimately held accountable for Lee’s death: Adnan Syed.
Here’s what happened leading up to the latest chapter.
The Evidence Against Syed
The prosecution’s case against Syed, who was 17 years old when he was arrested, seemed open-and-shut: Syed’s friend Jay Wilds told police, and would later testify in court, that Syed had killed Lee, had bragged to him about the killing and then enlisted his help in burying Lee’s body. According to Wilds, the two drove around Baltimore with Lee’s car—her body in the trunk—before burying her in a shallow grave in a nearby park.
The prosecution used Syed’s cell phone records to corroborate Wilds’ story and place Syed at the burial site on the day of Lee’s disappearance.
A year after Lee’s disappearance, despite no physical evidence tying him to the crime, Syed was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
Syed claimed he was innocent and had nothing to do with Lee’s death.
Serial Podcast Puts Spotlight on Syed’s Case
But in 2014, the case exploded onto the national spotlight thanks to a true-crime podcast, Serial, a spinoff of This American Life. Hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, Serial, Season 1—which premiered on October 3, 2014—offered a deep-dive into Lee’s murder and Syed’s subsequent conviction, calling into question the story presented by the prosecution.
To start with, Syed—still in prison for Lee’s murder—continues to maintain his innocence. Not only did Syed have no motive to kill Lee (he claims the two remained friends after their breakup, just prior to her death), but a classmate, Asia McClain, claimed in two different affidavits she saw Syed at the public library around the same time prosecutors said Lee was murdered.
As Serial progressed each week, the world started to pay attention to Adnan Syed’s case.
“The media is certainly shining a light on some old cases,” says John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at The University of Pennsylvania Law School.
In the wake of Serial’s success, more podcasts and documentaries have re-examined other supposedly “open and shut” cases, such as the murder of Teresa Halbach in the Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer, and the murder of college student Elizabeth Andes in the true-crime podcast Accused.
“These cases involve the death penalty and life imprisonment, so they’re very high stakes,” says Hollway, who writes about how to prevent errors in the criminal justice system. “They not only involve the victim but the victim’s family, the community and the incarcerated person. When the stakes are so high, we’re shocked that there might have been some monumental screwup.”
That “monumental screwup” is exactly what Serial purports to have happened with Syed’s case.
Is Adnan Syed Innocent?
Listening to Serial, the audience hears inconsistencies in Wilds’ testimony and how Syed’s legal team tanked his case. For example, McClain, who says she had a conversation with Syed in the library, was never contacted by Syed’s attorneys and was never asked to testify as an alibi witness during Syed’s trial.
Syed’s defense lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, was disbarred in 2001 (she agreed to resign rather than fight complaints filed against her by the Attorney Grievance Commission) and died on January 30, 2004.
“I think what the Serial podcast does so well is [it] looks at every system in the case: The police, prosecutors, defense and judge all made mistakes that allowed [Syed’s conviction] to happen,” says Hollway.
These cases, where multiple systems break down and cause a faulty conviction, are the most shocking to people—and attract the most attention. “These shows and podcasts expose systemic problems in a way that’s really shocking,” says Hollway. “The judge and the defense team are supposed to protect people against wrongful prosecution, and when those fail-safes don’t work, people start going ‘holy crap.'”
But hope is not entirely lost for Syed.
Adnan Syed New Trial
On March 29, 2018 the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (COSA) overturned Syed’s murder conviction and affirmed Syed’s right to a new trial. According to COSA, Syed’s lawyer failed to include key testimony and evidence during his murder trial, which violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective legal counsel.
The retrial will also likely cast doubt on the cell phone evidence originally used to convict Syed. That evidence showed that Syed’s phone pinged a cell phone tower in the park where Lee’s body was found on the day she went missing. But Syed’s attorney, C. Justin Brown says a disclaimer from AT&T about the use of the cell phone records (that the information regarding location status was only reliable for outgoing calls, not incoming calls) should have made them inadmissible by prosecutors.
“It might not result in a different outcome, but media attention certainly sends a signal that the public servants working this case from the inside need to be very careful,” Hollway says. “They can’t just ‘answer the question’ of whether Syed is guilty or innocent, so to speak. They need to ‘show their work.’ Because people are watching.”
Update on Adnan Syed case 2019:
On November 28, 2018, a panel of seven judges with Maryland’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard arguments from the state and the defense in Adnan Syed’s case. Thiru Vignarajah, prosecutor for the state, acknowledged that Syed’s original trial lawyer, Guitierrez, did not contact a key alibi witness. Defense attorney, Catherine Stetson said Gutierrez “had an obligation to pursue that witness.” It’s not clear when the court’s review of Syed’s case will be completed, but as of February 4, 2019, there has been no decision made.