The case of Adnan Syed has been in the public eye since the release of the hit podcast, “Serial,” in 2014. In it, journalist Sarah Koenig delves into the 1999 trial and conviction of Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
Syed walked free on Sept. 19, 2022, after spending over 20 years in prison for the murder of Lee, convicted on what can best be described as “shaky” evidence.
In January 1999, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee went missing. Weeks later, her body was found buried in Baltimore City’s Leakin Park. Lee had been strangled.
The investigation led detectives to Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend. Syed, 17 at the time, pleaded not guilty and has maintained his innocence to this day.
During Syed’s trial, the prosecution relied heavily on witness testimony from Jay Wilds, a high school friend of Syed’s. Wilds claimed that Syed told him that he was going to kill Lee, showed him her body in the trunk of his car and then coerced Wilds to help him bury the body.
Wilds, however, was far from a reliable witness. His story changed multiple times throughout the investigation, trial and beyond. Namely, the location in which Wilds claimed Syed showed him the body. In his first interview with detectives, Wilds said to have met up with Syed somewhere along Edmondson Avenue, at which point Syed opened his trunk, revealing Lee’s body. A couple of weeks later, the location at which this encounter happened had changed to their local Best Buy parking lot. When speaking to a reporter in 2014, Wilds claimed that it was in front of his grandmother’s house that he met Syed on that fateful day.
Prosecutors, knowing their witness was far from sound, reportedly told the jury, “We know he’s not the greatest witness,” assuring them that his testimony was corroborated by Syed’s cell phone records.
Said cell phone records were the other leg on which the prosecution’s case stood, claiming these records proved where Syed went and with whom he spoke during the day of Lee’s murder. Simply put, they filled any gaps in Wilds’ story.
Despite the state’s emphasis on these cell phone records, there has been heavy discourse on their validity. Koenig describes in detail why they crumble under scrutiny in “Serial,” but simply put, experts agree that these records cannot be used to back up Wilds’ story.
The trial concluded with Syed being found guilty of murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to life in prison.
A Motion to Vacate
Twenty-three years after Syed was put behind bars, “prosecutors filed a motion saying they could no longer stand behind the murder case they built against [Syed],” Koenig describes in her most recent update to season one of the “Serial” podcast. A mere five days after this motion was filed, on Sept. 19, 2022, Syed was out of prison.
At the time of filing the motion to vacate, prosecutors were not exonerating Syed of his convicted crimes, but rather admitting that back in 1999, they relied on evidence they shouldn’t have — they broke the rules. Syed’s conviction wasn’t “honest.”
About a year ago, a new law was enacted in Maryland that urged Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, to send his case to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office for examination. This law said that if you have served at least 20 years in prison for a crime committed when you were a juvenile, you can ask for a reduced sentence. Suter hoped that this was a possibility for Syed.
The file ended up on the desk of state attorney, Becky Feldman, who was bothered by the details of the case. During her search for clarifying information, Feldman discovered notes, handwritten by a prosecutor in 1999, that allude to alternate suspects in the case. These notes hadn’t been seen by Syed’s defense. The failure to turn over crucial evidence like this to the defense is known as a Brady Violation.
The Other Suspects
The notes document two phone calls, from two separate people, who called the State Attorney’s Office with information about the same person. The identity of this person is being kept private; however, the information in the notes suggests that “he had the motive, opportunity and means to commit the crime.”
This new development brought to light two new suspects for the murder of Lee.
Both suspects have relevant criminal histories. One had a connection to the location where Lee’s car was discovered after her death. One is now in prison for sexual assault.
Both were investigated at the time of the murder, undoubtedly with less vigor than they should have been.
Syed is Free
After a mere 40 minutes in the courtroom, Judge Melissa M. Phinn was ready with her decision. “On this 19th day of September 2022, in the interest of justice, the motion to vacate is hereby granted,” she announced.
This decision marked a day of celebration for Syed and his family, but for Lee’s family, it reopened wounds that they have been trying to heal for decades. “When I think it’s over, it always comes back. A real-life living nightmare for 20 plus years,” says Lee’s brother, Young Lee.
All Charges Dropped
On Oct. 11, the charges against Syed were officially dropped after new DNA evidence excluded him from the crime.
Now that Syed’s charges have been dropped, his attorneys will begin the process of having him officially exonerated.
“Yesterday, there was a lot of talk about fairness, but most of what the state put in that motion to vacate, all the actual evidence, was either known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999. So, even on a day when the government publicly recognizes its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness. Because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct, and that’s just this one case,” concludes Koenig.