Who is Adnan Syed? Was conviction reinstated, Serial podcast and Hae Min Lee murder case explained

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Adnan Syed was released from prison in 2022 after new evidence emerged. It came almost 10 years after journalist Sarah Koenig examined it in the Serial podcast

Adnan Syed has had his murder conviction reinstated despite having been released from prison after it was overturned in September 2022.

The 41-year-old was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 in the US city of Baltimore, Maryland and was meant to serve life in prison. But inconsistencies in the case against Mr Syed were examined during the first series of the hit true crime podcast Serial and generated huge public interest in what appeared to be a miscarriage of justice.

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Over 12 episodes, journalist Sarah Koenig took a deep dive into the murder investigation. Her reporting found multiple holes in the police’s handling of the case and the evidence used to convict Adnan Syed, ultimately leading to the quashing of the charges against 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?

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.

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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.

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)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)
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) | AFP via Getty Images

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.

In a special episode released after the case against Mr Syed was quashed in September 2022, Sarah Koenig looked into what had led to the judicial review of his murder conviction. She looked into new information that had come to light about two other murder suspects who were found to have been operating in Baltimore at the time. Another episode could be in the pipeline with the latest twist in the tale.

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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.

The US Supreme Court refused to review Adnan Syed’s murder conviction (image: AFP/Getty Images)The US Supreme Court refused to review Adnan Syed’s murder conviction (image: AFP/Getty Images)
The US Supreme Court refused to review Adnan Syed’s murder conviction (image: AFP/Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

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.

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Since his release last year, he has been working for Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative - a scheme that educates people who are in prison, as well as those who have recently been released. Mr Syed is reported to be working on prison reform.

Why has Adnan Syed’s conviction been reinstated?

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. 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.

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

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 was not declared innocent of Hae Min Lee’s murder, Adnan Syed had his convictions quashed in September 2022 and was able to return to his family home where he was placed under house arrest and had to wear an electronic tag.

Maryland state had 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or dismiss the case altogether, opting for the latter outcome. But Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, filed an appeal in December 2022 arguing that prosecutors had violated the state’s law by failing to give sufficient notice of hearings into the reappraisal of the case so that her family and representatives could attend them in person. He had been given just one business day’s notice.

On Tuesday (28 March), the Maryland appeals court agreed that the state had violated Mr Lee’s rights and said it would conduct “a new, legally compliant and transparent hearing” covering why is wishes to overturn Adnan Syed’s conviction. As part of the process, it has had to reinstate Mr Syed’s murder conviction - although its ruling suggests the conviction will only remain in place until the repeat hearing has been concluded.

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