On January 13, 1999, 18-year-old high school student Hae Min Lee was reported missing by her parents after she didn’t come home one night. A search was started, and four weeks later, Lee’s body was found half-buried in Leakin Park outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
Within weeks of Lee’s body being found, on February 28, 1999, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested for her murder. Lee had recently broken up with Syed, and prosecutors alleged that Syed strangled Lee to death because he couldn’t accept their breakup.
The case against Syed rested primarily on the word of his friend, Jay Wilds, who told police he helped Syed bury Lee’s body. Another witness, Jennifer Pusateri, claimed at trial that Wilds told her about Syed’s alleged confession and that he was shown Lee’s body. The prosecution also presented evidence from cell towers, which backed up at least some of what Wilds said about when things occurred.
Syed always said he was innocent, but in February 2000, he was convicted of Lee’s murder and sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 30 years. He tried to appeal in 2003 but failed. In 2010, he appealed again, on the basis of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” Biography reported. The appeal referred to his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who Syed said did not look into his alibi witness, Asia McClain, who insisted she was with Syed at their high school library when Lee was supposed to have been killed.
Gutierrez in 2001 agreed to be disbarred after other complaints were made against her. She died in 2004.
During his 2010 appeal, Syed’s attorneys also pointed out that the cell tower records from the original trial were unreliable.
What seemed like a big break for Syed came in 2014, when journalist Sarah Koenig began her podcast, “Serial,” and featured Syed’s story. Koenig’s podcast did not blindly advocate for Syed, instead laying out everything the journalist found in the case, whether it pointed to Syed’s innocence in guilt. Koenig noted the unreliability of Wilds’ statement – which changed repeatedly over the years. His police interviews also appear to show he was coached by Baltimore police during the investigation. Koenig also explained on her podcast that the timeline of the crime didn’t add up.
“We knew people would come to different conclusions, of course. Barring some smoking-gun evidence, which we didn’t find (and it seems like no one else has either), there was no way for us to say definitively what happened. But what we were pointing out in our story was that the timeline of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems. Which meant the people who convicted Adnan of murder, they didn’t know what happened either,” Koenig recently told The New York Times. “And so this kid goes to prison for life at 18, based on a story that wasn’t accurate. That’s what we wanted people to think about: Even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?”
Serial may have elevated Syed’s story, but it wasn’t without its issues, as Slate reported. Rabia Chaudhry, who is one of the hosts of the “Undisclosed” podcast, compared Serial to a burning house.
“Imagine you ask someone to help renovate your house. Instead they set fire to it. The story about the fire brings thousands to your aid that rebuild your house,” Chaudhry tweeted.
This is because, as Slate noted, “Serial” cast doubt on Syed’s “innocence using disproven evidence, and for years never posted a correction or update.”
Following the success of “Serial,” Syed’s story was also the subject of Chaudhry’s own podcast, and a book she published in 2016 called “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.” McClain, Syed’s alibi witness, also published her own book called “Confessions of a Serial Alibi” in 2016. Investigations Discovery and HBO also produced their own documentaries on the case.
It wasn’t until June 2016 that the legal system started to work in Syed’s favor. That year, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch granted Syed a retrial. That ruling was upheld in March 2018 by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. A year later, however, Syed’s hopes of a retrial were dashed when Maryland’s highest court rejected the appeals court’s decision, claiming the evidence brought up in appeal wouldn’t have changed the jury’s decision had it been included during the original trial.
Syed had to wait three more years to score a real court victory. On September 19, 2022, Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Melissa Phinn made the decision to overturn Syed’s murder conviction, following a yearlong investigation involving prosecutors and Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter. That investigation discovered that authorities knew two alternate suspects prior to Syed’s trial but withheld the information from his defense. This, the prosecutors and Suter argued, was known as a Brady violation.
One of those alternate suspects had threatened Lee in front of another person, The New York Times reported, saying he would make her “disappear” and threatening to “kill her.” The other suspect also gave police information at the time of the investigation into Lee’s death that “can be viewed as a motive for that same suspect to harm the victim,” prosecutors said in their motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.
Suter argued that Syed may not have spent 23 years in prison if prosecutors hadn’t withheld evidence.
“If that evidence had been disclosed, perhaps Adnan would not have missed his high school graduation, or his pre-med plans, or 23 years of birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, community events and everyday moments of joy,” Suter said after Syed’s conviction was vacated.
Syed walked out of prison on September 19, with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby saying that “justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit,” though she wouldn’t say she was definitively dismissing the charges against Syed. Her office has 30 days to decide whether they will drop the charges or try him again. In the meantime, Syed is on home detention and ordered to wear a GPS monitor.
Not everyone is convinced that Syed is innocent or that he received an unfair trial. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state during Syed’s appeals, argued that Syed’s release was wrong and that his office wasn’t consulted about the alleged violations.
“Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone from her office bothered to consult with either the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case or with anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations,” Frosh said in a statement. “The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”