Serial podcast: The US investigation that sparked the true crime podcast obsession

It is the investigation that has been credited with launching the international obsession for true crime podcasts.

Now, the murder conviction that featured in the first series of US podcast phenomenon Serial has been overturned after 22 years – allowing accused Adnan Syed to walk free from the courtroom for the first time in his adult life.

The story of Mr Syed’s conviction of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, who was found dead in a Baltimore park in 1999, was brought into the national – and international – consciousness eight years ago when former Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-radio-journalist Sarah Koenig became interested in the case.

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Months of investigations and interviews by Ms Koenig produced the first series of Serial, a spin-off of long-running radio programme This American Life, which raised questions as to whether Mr Syed had been given a fair trial.

Adnan Syed at a court hearing in FebruaryAdnan Syed at a court hearing in February
Adnan Syed at a court hearing in February

Mr Syed, a well-liked teenager on a programme for academically gifted students at the Maryland city’s Woodlawn High School, was found guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery in February 2000 and has spent more than half of his life behind bars. He was 18 at the time.

On Monday, Baltimore circuit judge Melissa Phinn said she was vacating Mr Syed’s conviction "in the interest of fairness and justice", adding the state had failed to share evidence that could have helped his defence at trial.

Now aged 41, he walked out of the court house, unshackled, into a waiting SUV. He has been released into home detention with an electronic tag while prosecutors, who have spent the past year reviewing evidence with Mr Syed’s legal team, decide over the next 30 days if they will proceed with a new trial or drop the charges.

The podcast captivated listeners around the world, sparking an online fascination with the case and earning a Peabody Award in April 2015 for its innovative telling of a long-form nonfiction story.

In the 12-part series, Serial forensically examined information heard at the trial and also interviewed friends of Mr Syed, as well as the convicted killer himself. However, some of the content has been controversial, with key witnesses who chose not to be part of the podcast complaining the programmes did not give a full picture of the situation.

During recording, producer Ms Koenig formed a strong rapport with Mr Syed, speaking to him repeatedly from prison on phone calls in which she insisted he “did not sound like a murderer”. Mr Syed himself has always insisted he is innocent.

His first trial, which began in December 1999, ended in a mistrial after just three days. The second began in January the following year and lasted six weeks before he was sentenced to life in prison.

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In echoes of the trial of American football star OJ Simpson, who was acquitted of the murder of his wife and her friend in 1994, one difficulty for prosecutors in holding a fresh trial may be finding jury members who are not aware of the details of the murder case due to the high level of media attention. The podcast series, which was bought by the New York Times two years ago, has been downloaded more than 175 million times.

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Adnan Syed freed after murder conviction featured in Serial podcast thrown out

Following the success of Serial, a four-part HBO documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed”, was broadcast in 2019. A second podcast series, Undisclosed – led by Rabia Choudry, a human rights lawyer and childhood friend of Mr Syed who has long petitioned for his release – also detailed the case, as did a subsequent book written by Ms Choudry.

The phenomenon of the true crime podcast genre has sparked not only a flood of similar productions, but also a fictional spin-off of a comedy TV series, Only Murders in the Building, starring Steve Martin. The series is about three friends who begin a podcast in a bid to investigate a murder in their apartment building. In a further meta twist, a popular podcast was made discussing the series itself.

Last year, Mr Syed’s legal team asked prosecutors to reconsider his sentence, citing a change to local laws which meant those convicted of serious crimes as juveniles could be eligible for reconsideration. Separately, they requested a review of DNA evidence used at Mr Syed’s trial in light of the emergence of new technologies since the murder in 1999.

His lawyer, Erica J Suter, said her client was stunned to have left prison after spending more than half his life behind bars.

“He said he can’t believe it’s real,” Ms Suter said following his release. “Today is both joyful and incredibly overwhelming.”

During the review, prosecutors said they had unearthed information that had not been available for Mr Syed’s defence team during the trial, saying the state "no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction”.

The review turned up two "alternative suspects", who have not been named, but are said to have been known to police at the time of the initial investigation. Both, the review team reported, are said to have had “motive and/or propensity to commit this crime”.

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They also raised questions over mobile phone data used to place Mr Syed near the burial site – three miles from the high school he and Ms Lee both attended – citing a notice on the records specifically stating billing locations for incoming calls “would not be considered reliable information for location”.

Mr Syed’s conviction centred strongly around the testimony of a friend of Mr Syed’s, Jay Wilds, who told prosecutors during the trial that he had helped Mr Syed dig a shallow grave for Ms Lee’s body. Mr Wilds claimed he agreed to do so due to fears that Mr Syed would tell police that he had sold drugs to high school students.

Mr Wilds did not speak to Serial and has since claimed Ms Koenig’s rehashing of the case has created an “evil archetype” of him that has disrupted his family’s life.

In a court motion lodged on Wednesday, Ms Suter wrote the mobile phone data was “inaccurate and misleading”, and referenced Mr Wilds’ testimony.

“Mr Syed’s conviction rests on the evolving narrative of an incentivised, co-operating, 19-year-old co-defendant, propped up by inaccurate and misleading cellphone location data,” she wrote. “This was so in 1999, when Mr Syed was a 17-year-old child. It remains so today.”

A new episode of Serial was published hours after Mr Syed’s release.

The legal process of Adnan Syed’s trial

The legal process of Adnan Syed’s case has been convoluted.

His first trial for the murder of Hae Min Lee ended in a mistrial, after jurors accidentally overheard a dispute between Mr Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, and the presiding judge. After learning the jury had overheard this exchange, the judge granted Ms Guttierez's motion for a mistrial.

In February 2000, the jury of the second trial found Mr Syed guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment and robbery.

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In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Mr Syed on grounds his lawyer, Ms Gutierrez, who died in 2004, did not contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective legal counsel.

However, after a series of appeals, Maryland’s highest court denied a new trial in a divided decision in 2019. The Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Mr Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Mr Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.

The US Supreme Court declined to review the case in 2019.



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