An American man named Adnan Syed, now aged 41, was released from prison on Monday (September 19), after he had spent nearly 23 years behind bars for a crime that he has long maintained he never committed. A Baltimore court vacated Syed’s conviction for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 — a case that captured the public’s attention years later through the hit true-crime podcast ‘Serial’.
Judge Melissa M Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court ruled that the prosecutors did not turn over evidence that could have helped Syed’s defence case, and therefore violated the state’s legal obligation. Syed was also ordered to be placed under home detention with GPS monitoring.
‘Serial’, which in 2014 raised concerns about the prosecution’s case against Syed and inspired spirited discussions about Lee’s murder among the public, released a new episode on Tuesday (September 20), after his release.
Adan Syed was a 17-year-old high school student in 1999, when his classmate and on-again, off-again 18-year-old girlfriend, Korean-American Hae Min Lee, disappeared. After her body was found buried in a nearby park in Baltimore, Syed was arrested for allegedly strangling her to death.
His first trial, which began in December of that year, ended in a mistrial. In the next trial, which began in January 2000, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years.
The prosecutors had argued that after finding out that Lee was dating someone else, Syed, who is Muslim and of Pakistani descent, killed her in a fit of anger as his “honour” had been “besmirched”.
They relied on evidence from Syed’s friend, Jay Wilds, who testified that he helped him bury Lee’s body, The New York Times reported, as well as his cell phone location data to prove he was in the area near the park, evidence that was later proven to be flawed.
Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and close friend of Syed’s family, interacted with journalist Sarah Koenig more than a decade after Syed’s arrest, and told her about Lee’s murder. Koenig took interest in the case and began investigating the sequence of events.
In 2014, the first season of ‘Serial’ was aired and in 12 episodes, Koenig recounted Syed’s story, and tried to reconstruct the events that occurred on the night of Lee’s murder.
The podcast raised concerns about some of the evidence used against Syed, and revived the murder case. Syed was granted a new trial in 2015, partly from new evidence unearthed during the making of ‘Serial’, the BBC reported. However, the judge denied his request for bail.
‘Serial’’s investigation of the case against Syed had all the elements of a gripping story in the true-crime genre. A popular young victim, her suspect-boyfriend who the prosecution claimed had brutally killed her in a fit of jealousy, questionable evidence used against Syed, and a defence lawyer who mishandled the case — leading to the central question, who really killed Hae Min Lee— all the components of a classic whodunnit.
The podcast reignited interest in the case and helped throw new light on Syed’s seeming innocence, with the reverse too being arguably true. ‘Serial’’s retelling of the events made it an extremely popular podcast, and people around the world debated what really had happened.
Season 1 of Serial, which covered Syed’s case, has been downloaded more than 300 million times, and was No.1 on iTunes for several weeks. The podcast won a Peabody Award in 2015, with its narration playing an important role in popularising the podcast format. ‘Serial’ was acquired by The New York Times in 2020.
Why has Syed been freed only now?
Over the years, many attempts have been made to get Syed released from prison. In 2015, a lower court ordered a retrial, stating that his legal representative did not contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel, the Associated Press reported.
After a number of appeals, Maryland’s highest court denied him a retrial in 2019. That same year, the US Supreme Court also declined to review his case.
Syed’s new lawyer, Erica J Suter, brought the case to state attorney Marilyn J Mosby in 2021 after Maryland introduced new legislation that allowed people convicted of crimes as juveniles to appeal for a change in their sentence after they had served 20 years, The New York Times reported.
In the process, new evidence emerged, leading prosecutors to conduct an investigation into two other suspects who may have been involved in Lee’s murder in 1999, but were never fully ruled out.
Syed was only freed in 2022, after Judge Phinn ruled that the prosecution team had earlier violated its legal obligation by failing to turn over evidence that could have changed the outcome of the case.
What happens in the case now?
Judge Phinn stated on Monday (September 19) that the prosecutors will have 30 days to decide whether they want a new trial, or if they want to dismiss the case against Syed, who is currently serving home detention.
After the trial, state attorney Mosby said investigators were waiting to see the results of a “DNA analysis” before deciding if they want to close the case against Syed and “certify his innocence”, the Associated Press reported.