Eight years after Serial made Adnan Syed a household name, the justice system has validated the heartbreaking truth the podcast’s reporting revealed to the public back in 2014: Syed’s trial was deeply flawed, and he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee. That means the justice system potentially imprisoned the wrong man for the last 23 years. On Monday, Adnan Syed walked out of prison for the first time since he was a teenager.
The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office said in a motion submitted last Wednesday that they could not justify keeping Syed in prison any longer because several factors of the case had given them “overwhelming cause for concern”: A prosecutor had found two potential suspects in case files who hadn’t been properly ruled out during the investigation. They did not reveal in the motion who the suspects were, but said that a caller had told authorities one of them had said, of Lee, that he would “kill her” and “make her disappear.” The prosecution had never told the defense about those suspects, which could be a Brady violation. Further, the state was newly doubting its star witness, Jay Wilds, and had lost confidence in cell phone location data as evidence.
In the years since Serial, picking apart a criminal case for potential flaws has become a common starting point for crime podcasts — after all, the justice system has no shortage of problematic cases. But it was Syed’s cooperation and affability as an interview subject that drew audiences in. Listening to Serial was a back-and-forth of evidence and interviews, and choose-your-own conclusion week to week whether he was guilty or not. It felt like he had to be, as Koenig repeatedly laid out, either a ridiculously unlucky guy, or a charming sociopath. By staying focused on the mystery, listeners were rapt wondering, “Did he or didn’t he,” but that made it easy to lose sight of the humans in the story. The case of the murder of Hae Min Lee is about one life lost and another one ruined, with family members and loved ones feeling the lasting impact of both. Now, while a botched criminal conviction has been finally undone, the painful question of who killed Lee still gnaws, even though that was the original goal of the investigation. Whether it was Syed — who the State’s Attorney stopped short of exonerating — or another suspect, Lee’s family doesn’t know. And in that sense, as her killing recedes further into the past, justice still feels a long way off.
Serial was set in a world of uncertainty: some things, like a call placed from Syed’s cell to his friend Nisha at a time on the day of the murder when he was supposedly without his phone, looked pretty bad for him. Other things — like a key alibi witness, Asia, saying she’d seen him in the library — seemed pretty exculpatory. And while listeners might not have admitted it to themselves, so did his likeability. Throughout interviews with Koenig, Syed was always willing to get introspective, even philosophical. “I know how this must sound,” he’d often say, trying to look at the case from other people’s perspectives. “Maybe if it would have happened to someone else,” he said in one episode, “I would have believed it just because I naturally would have assumed that if the police got the right guy, they got him for the right reasons.”
In a new episode of Serial, released Tuesday morning, Koenig indicated just how closely she’d followed the case: she said that she knows who the two possible new suspects are. In the episode, she said they were investigated, though not at length. (She chose not to name them because the prosecution says the investigation is ongoing. The state has 30 days to decide whether they will prosecute Syed again in a new trial.) It was the first new episode covering the case since 2016, when Koenig had attended three days of post-conviction relief hearings. Devoted listeners will recall that’s when Asia McClain, the alibi witness, who Syed’s original lawyer never reached out to, finally spoke in court.
As Serial documented, the state’s case hinged largely on the testimony of one man: Jay Wilds, a casual friend of Syed’s who told police Syed had sought him out as an accomplice because of his perceived “criminal” status in their Baltimore area. He was able to lead police to the place where Lee’s car was parked, but that was the only material evidence he provided — the rest of his story kept changing. Still, Wilds’ testimony mapped out the day of the murder for jurors, who were told that even if Wilds was a shaky witness, cellphone data backed him up. Wilds pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to first degree murder, but got no prison time after testifying against Syed. But that cellphone data, it turned out, was faulty. As prosecutors acknowledged in their motion to vacate, a disclaimer on the records entered into evidence had specifically stated that the billing locations for incoming calls were not reliable for determining location. This made Wilds’ testimony that much shakier.
While justice may have been served for Syed and his supporters, the same can’t be said for the family of Hae Min Lee. Though Serial audiences found themselves enraptured with Syed’s story, the podcast made the choice to focus on the investigation into Lee’s murder, rather than into Lee herself. Today, it’s standard procedure to tell the story of the victim, to try to make the audience understand who was lost and who is impacted by the crime. (It’s reached the point of parody, even: “Every great Episode Two always makes you care deeply for the victim,” Martin Short’s character says on the first season of Only Murders in the Building.)
Getting deep into Lee’s background isn’t something the podcast achieved, although Koenig described the victim based on what friends said about her. Perhaps that’s because the case was brought to her by Rabia Chaudry, a longtime friend of Syed’s, and a lawyer who has spent much of her career trying to get his case reexamined. Additionally, Lee’s family declined to participate — meaning Koenig could only use what came from the case files, and not their own recollections. But either way, the result was clear: In the national obsession over the guy who was wrongfully convicted of a murder, the murdered high school girl Hae Min Lee got lost. In water-cooler chats, listeners would have discussed Nisha, Asia, Jay — all the real people who came to feel like characters in this captivating whodunnit, and Lee’s name would have been hardly mentioned. She had become a footnote.
At some point during the initial 2014 season, a person purporting to be Lee’s brother began posting on Reddit, criticizing the podcast for publicizing his sister’s murder to an audience of millions. “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE,” he wrote. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heart att[a]ck when she got the new[s] that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting.” He added that although Koenig had reached out to the family, they’d chosen not to participate or respond.
At Monday’s hearing, Lee’s brother Young Lee addressed Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of his family, echoing some of the sentiments in the Reddit posts that circulated when Serial was released: “This is not a podcast for me,” he said. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.” He said he believes in the justice system and that he does not oppose a new investigation if it’s necessary. He also said he felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” by the decision to vacate Syed’s conviction, and said his family had struggled with the turns the case had taken over the years. “Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back,” he said. “It’s killing me and killing my mother.”
Outside the courthouse, Steve Kelly, a lawyer for the Lee family, addressed reporters, saying they were “hopeless” and “despairing” when it comes to justice for Lee. “They feel like Adnan Syed is an international celebrity,” Kelly said. “The story is about him. He’s been made to be a hero in the media. And Hae Min Lee is not part of that narrative.”