Who is Adnan Syed? Case made viral by Serial podcast explained as man accused of Hae Min Lee murder released

Serial was the first true crime podcast to gain mass public attention, with Sarah Koenig’s reporting of the inconsistencies in the Adnan Syed case followed by millions

Adnan Syed has been released from prison, after a US court overturned his conviction for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999.

His story was the focus of the first series of the hit true crime podcast Serial. Over 12 episodes, journalist Sarah Koenig took a deep dive into the case against Adnan Syed and found multiple holes in the investigation and evidence used to convict him.

Serial has been downloaded more than 340 million times across the world since its release in 2014. It was arguably the first podcast to break through into mainstream consciousness. So, who is the series one subject Adnan Syed - and what did Sarah Koenig reveal about the murder case he was alleged to have been involved in?

Here’s what you need to know.

Adnan Syed’s attorney speaks outside a courthouse in Baltimore after a judge threw out the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend (Photo: Getty Images)

What is the Serial podcast?

The Serial podcast is a true crime show that has become legendary among podcast fans across the world. It was created by the same organisation behind fellow hit series This American Life - Chicago public service broadcaster WBEZ - in 2013.

Journalist Sarah Koenig produced and presented series one, which focused on the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his then-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The 12 episodes of the series saw Ms Koenig take a deep dive into the case.

She presented it in a way that meant listeners felt they were conducting the case alongside her in real time. In the process of sorting through thousands of documents, listening to police interviews and the trial itself, as well as undertaking interviews with key people involved, Ms Koenig discovered several flaws in the investigation and subsequent case against Adnan Syed.

Ultimately, the series shed light on some major questions, including how easy it is to judge a person’s character and whether it’s possible to tell what people are capable of. Serial won a Peabody Award and led to a reassessment of Adnan Syed’s conviction.

Who is Adnan Syed?

Adnan Syed’s conviction for the murder of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee formed the central plank of Serial season one.

The 41-year-old was in prison for more than 22 years after being found guilty for the 18-year-old Korean-American student’s murder in a Baltimore park some time between January and February 1999. He has repeatedly denied all responsibility for the crime.

He was initially put on trial in December 1999 but this ended after only three days after a procedural error. Mr Syed was then on trial for six weeks between January and February 2000.

Adnan Syed was found guilty of first degree murder by strangulation, kidnapping, false imprisonment and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.

What has happened in the Adnan Syed case?

In the intervening years between his imprisonment and the Serial podcast, Adnan Syed maintained his innocence as both he and his family exhausted all legal avenues.

But the podcast brought to light several issues with the evidence against the American, as well as with his defence counsel Cristina Gutierrez.

In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Mr Syed on the basis that Gutierrez, who died in 2004, had not contacted an alibi witness and had not fulfilled her constitutional role.

Journalist Sarah Koenig uncovered major issues with the investigation into Hae Min Lee’s murder (image: Getty Images)

Subsequently, a series of appeals reached Maryland’s highest court in 2019. But judges denied a retrial by a 4-3 vote because they said that while Gutierrez had neglected her duties to her client, this had not prejudiced the case.

The US Supreme Court then denied to review the case.

However, a joint-investigation by state prosecutors and Mr Syed’s defence had uncovered new evidence that would appear to undermine the 41-year-old’s conviction.

Problems with the original investigation into Hae Min Lee’s murder included what Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby called “unreliable cell phone tower data”, as well as unreliable witness evidence, a potentially biased detective and police ignoring two alternative suspects.

On the latter point, the suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation, but police were deemed to have not properly ruled them out or disclosed their existence to the defence.

It means that, while he has not been declared innocent of Hae Min Lee’s murder, Adnan Syed has had his convictions quashed and has been able to return to his family home. He remains under house arrest and has to wear an electronic tag.

Maryland state now has 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or dismiss the case altogether. In the meantime, the case remains active.