A judge has overturned the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the “Serial” podcast’s first season, after Baltimore prosecutors filed a motion for a new trial based on new evidence.
Syed, 41, was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for the first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and imprisonment of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
After continuously denying any involvement in the woman’s death for more than 23 years behind bars, prosecutors on September 16 asked Syed to face a new trial following a year-long investigation that uncovered new evidence.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn ruled in favor of prosecutors on Monday (September 19) and vacated Syed’s conviction “in the interest of justice,” marking the latest dramatic twist in a case that has captured worldwide attention.
Here’s what you need to know about the case:
Who is Adnan Syed?
Syed and Lee were seniors at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County. In January 1999, Lee disappeared, and her body was found strangled and dumped in an urban forest three weeks later.
Lee and Syed had dated and broken up before her disappearance and death.
An anonymous tipster called investigators and claimed they should investigate Syed as a possible culprit. Police followed through on that threat and eventually arrested him on charges of first-degree murder, although Syed has maintained his innocence.
In February 2000, Syed was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with an additional 30 years.
‘Serial’ puts Syed in the national spotlight
In 2014, journalist Sarah Koenig released a podcast called “Serial,” which focused on Lee’s death and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Syed. The podcast explored the prosecution’s argument and the evidence police used to link Syed to Lee’s death.
The podcast was a big hit. By February 2015, the first season’s episodes had been downloaded more than 68 million times, according to CBS News. This figure rose to 80 million the following year and 100 million in the summer of 2016.
“Serial” was often credited in the press with starting the true crime craze that dominated the late 2010s and continues to influence the media today.
The show frequently tested and questioned official police and prosecutors, building a compelling case, not necessarily that Syed was innocent, but that there was a reasonable doubt in the state’s case.
By the end of the podcast, Koenig became undecided about the case, saying that if she were a juror, she probably would have voted to acquit Syed despite still having doubts about his innocence.
After the success of “Serial”, the case became the subject of a number of other documentary projects. A second podcast, called “Undisclosed: The State vs Adnan Syed” dissected the state’s case against Syed. There have also been two books, an Investigation Discovery special and an HBO docuseries that examined the case.
In the HBO documentaries, it was revealed that Syed rejected a plea deal in 2018 that would have shaved years off his sentence if he agreed to plead guilty.
New evidence triggers a motion for a new trial
After spending years appealing his conviction and refusing a deal to shorten his sentence, a major development in the case came on September 16 when Baltimore prosecutors made a bombshell request that the court vacate Syed’s conviction and hold a new trial.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed a motion saying “the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” after a nearly year-long investigation raised serious doubts about the case.
Mosby cited doubts about the validity of cellphone tower data used in the original trial to place Syed at the scene of the crime.
She also pointed to new information about the possible involvement of two alternative unnamed suspects.
The two suspects, who were not named because of the ongoing investigation, were both known to the initial homicide investigation in 1999 and were not ruled out or disclosed to the defense, prosecutors said in the court filing.
According to the documents seeking a new trial, one of the unnamed suspects at the time aided that “he would do [Lee] disappear. He wanted to kill her.”
Both suspects have previous criminal histories, with one convicted of assaulting a woman while she was sitting in her car, and another convicted of serial rape and sexual assault.
The new evidence may also be linked to the results of a DNA test that Syed and prosecutors requested in March.
The motion called for DNA from Lee’s clothing to be tested for touch DNA, which was not a test that could be run at the time Syed was arraigned. In the HBO docuseries, Syed’s lawyer claimed that none of his client’s DNA had been found on any of 12 items tested. These included items from Lee’s car and on her person.
Mosby said prosecutors want to make sure the actual killer or killers of Lee are brought to justice, whether it is actually Syed or someone else.
“As stewards of the court, we are committed to maintaining confidence in the integrity of convictions and doing our part to correct when this standard has been included,” she said in a statement. “We have spoken with the family of Mrs. Hae Min Lee and [they] fully understand that the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable.”
Syed walks free after the conviction is dropped
The prosecution’s motion was brought before Judge Phinn on Monday (September 19).
She agreed to vacate the conviction, paving the way for a new trial. Under state law, prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether to drop the charges against Syed or retry the case.
After being released on house arrest while the investigation into Lee’s murder continues, Syed walked out of the courtroom a free man, telling his lawyers he “can’t believe it’s real”.
He was greeted by a chorus of cheers as he descended the courthouse steps, smiling and flashing a peace sign before entering a waiting vehicle.
Reacting to the decision outside the courthouse, Mosby, the Baltimore City attorney, told reporters: “We are not yet declaring Adnan Syed innocent, but we are declaring, in the interests of justice and fairness, that he is entitled to a new trial. .”