Adnan Syed walked free from a Baltimore courthouse Monday after a judge tossed out his 2000 murder conviction in the case that captivated listeners around the world when it was featured in the breakout season of the hit podcast, “Serial.”
Here’s what to know:
Who is Adnan Syed?
Syed, now 41, spent more than two decades in prison after a jury convicted him of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when the two were teenagers. Lee, a senior at the Baltimore-area Woodlawn High School, disappeared on Jan. 13, 1999. Her body was found weeks later, inside a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. She had been strangled. Prosecutors argued that Syed, 17 and a fellow senior at Woodlawn, had killed Lee after she broke up with him. Jurors found him guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. A judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 30 years. Syed has always maintained his innocence and fought his conviction. His story reached millions through “Serial,” a hit podcast released in 2014.
Who was Hae Min Lee?
Lee, 18, was a popular student at Woodlawn High School whom a teacher described to the Baltimore Sun in 1999 as “one of those rare people you meet in life who is always happy, always joyful and full of love.” Lee played field hockey and lacrosse at Woodlawn, and the school retired her jersey number, 22, which she wore for both sports, after her death.
Lee and Syed dated but largely kept their relationship under wraps from their families in part because of cultural and religious differences, according to “Serial.” Lee was Korean American and Syed is of Pakistani descent.
Lee’s family said in 2016 that they believe Syed was guilty. They declined to participate in the production of “Serial.”
What is ‘Serial’?
In 2013, lawyer Rabia Chaudry contacted Sarah Koenig, a producer with the radio program “This American Life.” Chaudry, a longtime friend of Syed, was convinced he had been wrongly convicted. She wanted Koenig to investigate the case. The result was “Serial,” a podcast released in 12 episodes in the fall of 2014. The series became a smash hit and a cultural phenomenon. It reached millions of listeners, won a Peabody Award and helped fuel the popularity of podcasts, especially those focused on true crime. “Serial” released two subsequent seasons focused on other stories.
Why was Syed released?
The Baltimore City state’s attorney last week filed a motion to vacate Syed’s 2000 murder conviction and said that after a year-long investigation, “the State no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.” In other words, prosecutors believe the original investigation was insufficient and that the prosecution broke rules to win a conviction. Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn in Baltimore agreed, and found during the original trial, the state failed its obligation to share information that could have helped the defense.
What new facts or evidence have prosecutors mentioned?
The biggest bombshell from the state’s attorney’s motion was the that original prosecutors suppressed evidence that could have helped the defense, in what’s known in criminal law as a Brady violation.
In particular, prosecutors at the time did not share with the defense that they had information about an alternate suspect with a motive to kill Lee who had previously threatened to “make [Lee] disappear” and said “he would kill her.”
The state’s attorney said there are two alternate suspects in Lee’s murder and that they may have worked together. One of the suspects has a criminal history of attacking a woman in her car and one has a “credible” history of rape and sexual assault, the prosecutor’s office said, though the motion did not specify if both pieces of new information applied to one of the alternate suspects or a mix of the two.
Prosecutors know the identities of the alternate suspects but did not name them because they have not been charged with a crime relating to Lee’s murder.
The motion also described new information that indicates some of the evidence used to convict Syed, such as cellphone call data from the time, was unreliable.
Did the court say Syed is innocent?
No. The state’s attorney made this clear in her motion, and she distinguished between finding Syed’s initial conviction flawed and perhaps unconstitutional and saying he is innocent.
“To be clear, the State is not asserting at this time that Defendant is innocent,” the motion read.
Will Syed get a new trial?
Prosecutors have 30 days to decide if they wish to re-try Syed or drop the charges against him altogether.
In the meantime, prosecutors said they will continue their investigation and “bring a suspect or suspects to justice.”
How has Lee’s family reacted?
The Lee family said they were disappointed with Monday’s hearing. Appearing virtually in the courtroom, Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, said the prosecutors’ motion to vacate the conviction left him feeling “betrayed.”
“That’s really tough for me to swallow, and especially for my mom,” he said.
Young Lee said he was “not against investigation or anything of that sort,” adding, “Knowing that there could be someone out there free for killing my sister — it’s tough.”
“This is not a podcast for me,” he added. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
After the ruling, Steven J. Kelly, an attorney for the Lee family, said in a statement:
“For more than 20 years, no one has wanted to know the truth about who killed Hae Min Lee more than her family. The Lee family is deeply disappointed that today’s hearing happened so quickly and that they were denied the reasonable notice that would have permitted them to have a meaningful voice in the proceedings.”