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Why Murder Conviction For 'Serial' Subject Adnan Syed Was Overturned

Adnan Syed was released after spending more than two decades in prison for a crime many say he didn't commit. Meanwhile, the family of murder victim Hae Min Lee is still hoping for justice. 

By Jax Miller
The Adnan Syed Case, Explained

For two decades it seemed that Adnan Syed would spend the rest of his life in prison for the 1999 murder of his ex-high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, but a confluence of events that took shape over years – a stalwart maintenance of his own innocence, the tireless work of advocates on his behalf, and, not least of all, a wildly popular podcast that brought his case to the attention of millions – resulted in him walking free this week after a judge overturned his guilty verdict.

The case of Syed, now 41, began with the disappearance of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, who vanished on Jan. 13, 1999, shortly after leaving the campus of her Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. Four weeks later, a passerby came across the lher body, partially buried in the city’s Leakin Park. She had been strangled to death.

It wasn’t long before investigators turned their attentions toward Lee’s former high school sweetheart, 17-year-old Adnan Syed. One of Syed’s acquaintances, fellow teen Jay Wilds, would testify that Syed was angry about his recent breakup with Lee and showed him her dead body in the trunk of his car. Investigators had maintained Lee was attacked inside a vehicle before her body was taken to the park.

RELATED: Baltimore's Top Prosecutor Files Motion To Vacate 'Serial' Subject Adnan Syed's Conviction And Requests New Trial

Syed's defense were highly critical of Wilds' statements, which they argued were inconsistent and unreliable. They also argued that investigators cherry-picked parts of Wilds’ story to align with cell phone data collected during the investigation, another piece of the case that would prove crucial to the state's case against Syed.

Syed was eventually convicted in 2000 on charges of kidnapping, robbery, false imprisonment, and first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life behind bars plus 30 years.

Multiple appeals were denied over the years.

Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed at junior prom

It wasn’t until 2014 that Syed’s case began getting a fresh look, when a new podcast called “Serial” built its entire first season exploring it. Created and hosted by Sarah Koenig of “This American Life,” the breakthrough series garnered millions of listens on iTunes.

The show’s success paved the way for a massive wave of true-crime content that continues today. And public fascination with the case soon led to other projects, including the 2019 HBO series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and the New York Times bestseller “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial,” by longtime advocate, attorney, and family friend Rabia Chaudry.

The newfound media exposure fueled Syed's advocates, one of whom would be the Innocence Project. Their efforts also received a boost when, in October 2021, Maryland passed the Juvenile Restoration Act (JRA), which not only banned courts from imposing life sentences on minors without the possibility of parole but allowed those convicted as minors to request their sentences be modified and reduced retroactively.

For Syed, things seemed to move quickly from there.

In light of the JRA, the University of Maryland’s Innocence Project appealed to Baltimore's Sentencing Review Unit (SRU) to re-examine Syed’s case. In March, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that evidence from the original 1999 crime scene be retested using technology that wasn’t available during the original trial. Phinn’s decision came upon the request of both Syed’s defense attorneys and state prosecutors.

On Sept. 14, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed a motion to vacate Syed’s murder conviction, stating that “additional evidence emerged” during the new look at the case. The state’s attorney’s office suggested there were two alternate suspects in the case that previous prosecutors withheld from the defense, amounting to a Brady violation. According to the motion, one of the new alleged suspects “threatened to kill the victim and provided motives for that threat.” One also had previous convictions for rape and sexual assault.

The state’s attorney’s office did not release the identities of the two new suspects.

Adnan Syed leaves the courthouse

Prosecutors also said cell phone data used against Syed during the trial was “unreliable.”

On Monday, Judge Phinn vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered his release after 23 years behind bars, citing the state’s withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence.

“Justice has prevailed,” Mosby declared.

Those who have long supported Syed took to social media with the hashtag #AdnanIsFree, which quickly began trending on Twitter.

Others, namely the loved ones of Hae Min Lee, have been less than enthusiastic about Monday’s whirlwind hearing and Syed’s release. The judge declined the Lee family’s request to postpone the hearing so that relatives - based in California - could participate in Monday’s hearing, according to Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL-TV.

“This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life that will never end,” said Lee’s bother, Young Lee. “It’s been 20-plus years. It’s a nightmare. This is killing us.”

Lawyer Steve Kelly, representing the Lee family, said they were “disappointed” with how quickly Syed’s case moved following Mosby’s filing. He made a statement to People, claiming the state’s attorney’s office created a public spectacle out of the case, making it “virtually impossible to retry Adnan Syed to the extent that he’s the guy who committed this crime.”

“In addition to that, I think it’s going to make it virtually impossible for anybody to ever be brought to justice,” said Kelly. “So quite frankly, [Lee’s family] is very hopeless about any justice for Hae, and that’s where they are right now. They’re despairing. They feel like Adnan Syed is an international celebrity. The story is about him. He’s been made to be a hero in the media. And Hae Min Lee is not part of that narrative.”

Syed remains under house arrest with GPS monitoring. The state’s attorney’s office has 30 days to decide whether they will refile charges against Syed or toss his case altogether.

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