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Over 20 years ago, on a cold January afternoon, a violent crime would stun the city of Baltimore and forever change 19-year-old Adnan Syed’s life.
That night, Syed’s ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, went missing. Her body was later found in a shallow grave. A few months later, Syed was arrested for her murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Syed, however, relentlessly defended his innocence. His case sparked national attention, most notably from the famed podcast Serial. Today, after almost a quarter century, the 41-year-old’s murder conviction has been overturned and Adnan Syed is finally free.
Adnan Syed’s was convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee
Hae Min Lee was a cheerful, brilliant, beloved student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Lee moved to the United States from South Korea in 1992 at the age of 12. She quickly excelled in academics and athletics, competing on her high school’s field hockey and lacrosse teams.
On the afternoon of January 13, 1999, Lee left school to go pick up her younger cousin from daycare. However, the 18-year-old senior never arrived at the daycare, nor did she return home that night.
After her family reported her missing, Baltimore police began a search that would last nearly four weeks. Finally, on February 9th, Lee’s body would be discovered by a jogger in Baltimore’s Leakin park. An autopsy would find that Lee had been strangled to death. An anonymous tip would lead police to consider her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, as the prime suspect. Nineteen days after Lee’s body was discovered, Syed was arrested and charged with first degree murder.
Syed, however, maintained his innocence.
His denial of wrongdoing were matched with consistent errors made by both the prosecution and Syed’s own defense attorney.
None of Syed’s DNA was found at the crime scene, and court documents showed the state failed to test DNA found on Lee’s clothing. Additionally, Syed’s own defense attorney, failed to call a potential key witness (Asia McClain) who claimed to have been with Syed at the time Lee went missing.
Despite these discrepancies, the state was able to use various testimonies and Syed’s cell phone logs to poke holes in Syed’s claims of innocence. After a six week trial, a jury convicted Syed of murder, kidnapping, imprisonment and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years.
The Serial podcast about Adnan Syed’s case captivated the country
Adnan Syed and his family attempted on multiple occasions to get his conviction overturned. They filed for several appeals, including one claiming that Syed’s original defense attorney was negligent in her failure to investigate Asia McClain’s alibi.
All of these appeals failed. That is, however, until the Innocence Project and the Serial Podcast both began to look deeper into Syed’s case.
Serial, a This American Life podcast by reporter Sarah Koenig, quickly became a viral sensation. Over the course of a year, tens of millions tuned in to hear Adnan’s story.
Across ten episodes, Koenig dove into the particulars of the case. She interviewed Syed’s family, key witnesses, state officials and those now working on Syed’s defense. Keonig even used Syed’s cell phone log entered as evidence by the state to retrace Adnan’s steps from that day to see if she could confirm his timing.
The twists and turns in Koenig’s reporting had listeners hanging on her every word, attempting to piece the case together as each new morsel of evidence was presented.
Koenig even went into detail about other potential suspects who were never investigated by state officials, including a convicted sex offender who was connected to another killing in the area around the same time.
She also connected with several classmates of Adnan’s and Hae’s, some of whom also believed Adnan was innocent, and others who were convinced he was a killer.
Judge overturns Syed’s murder conviction at request of both prosecution and defense attorneys
On Monday, 8,242 days after first being convicted of Lee’s death and handed a life sentence, Judge Melissa Phinn granted a request to overturn Syed’s conviction. Syed will be released under home detention, pending a new trial.
The request, submitted on September 14 by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, claimed “the State no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.”
Mosby’s request included mention of a new trial “where [Syed] is adequately represented and the latest evidence can be presented.”
“We have spoken with the family of Ms. Hae Min Lee,” Mosby continued. “[They] fully understand that the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable.”
In a call to the court during Monday’s hearing, Hae Min Lee’s brother Young Lee got emotional when speaking about the case.
According to Baltimore Sun reporter Lee Sanderlin, Young Lee says he felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” by the prosecution.
“It’s tough for me to swallow, especially for my mom,” Lee told the court. “Everyday when I think it’s over… or it’s ended, it always comes back. It’s killing me. It’s really tough.”
Lee went on to say it is difficult for him and his family to now think that the person responsible for killing Hae Min could still be free.
The state will now have 30 days to determine if they will proceed with a new trial against Syed, or if they will dismiss the charges against him altogether.
Regardless of what the state decides next, today, after 23 years of maintaining his innocence, Adnan Syed gets to go home.