Adnan Syed, Subject of ‘Serial,’ Is Released From Prison

The decision comes 23 years after he was convicted for the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee

Adnan Syed leaves the courthouse after being released from prison
Adnan Syed, the subject of a 2014 investigation led by Sarah Koenig on the podcast “Serial,” leaves the courthouse after being released from prison. Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore Sun / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A familiar Mail Chimp ad and a certain signature, hair-raising theme song returned on Tuesday to usher in a new episode of “Serial” the award-winning investigative true crime podcast that first aired in 2014. This week’s episode? “Adnan Is Out.”

The Adnan in question is Adnan Syed, who was charged with the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School in Maryland. Syed, then 17, was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. On Monday, a judge deemed that ruling illegitimate, citing unreliable evidence and alternate suspects. For the first time in over two decades, Syed walked free from prison.

Back in 2014, the details of Syed’s case were brought to the attention of millions of Americans via “Serial,” a 12-episode podcast in which a team, led by journalist and host Sarah Koenig, investigated Lee’s murder and uncovered a number of issues with the trial that found Syed guilty.

Earlier this week, following an investigation that uncovered new evidence, Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated Syed’s conviction.

“I was shocked,” Koenig tells the New York Times’ David Leonhardt. “I did not see this coming at all.”

On the latest episode of “Serial,” Koenig described the scene at Adnan’s release: “From the people who’ve been arguing for his release, some of them for decades, the pent-up strain of years worth of rage and frustration suddenly loosed on the sidewalk, spilling onto Calvert Street.”

Syed did not speak to reporters on the way out of court, but attorney Erica Suter tells the Baltimore Sun’s Alex Mann and Lee O. Sanderlin that her client said “he couldn’t believe it’s real” following the ruling. Syed has been placed on home detention while the office of Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby decides whether to drop the charges against Syed or try him again. The prosecutors will need to make a decision within 30 days.

At 18 years old, Lee was strangled to death and buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Syed, now 41, has never wavered in maintaining his innocence. This week’s ruling did not proclaim him innocent; it concluded that the original trial had not been just. “The state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” prosecutors stated in their motion.

Significantly, the investigation that led to this week’s decision identified two unnamed alternative suspects and uncovered evidence that prosecutors may have failed to disclose to Syed’s lawyers. Among that evidence is a file indicating that one of those alternative suspects had threatened Lee, saying he would “kill her.” Prosecutors also disclosed that one of the suspects is a serial rapist who was convicted for numerous sexual assaults after Syed’s trial, and that Lee’s car was discovered near the residence of one of the suspects.

Additionally, prosecutors highlighted that cellphone tower data used to convict Syed was unreliable, and that Jay Wilds, a key witness who testified against Syed, provided inconsistent statements.

Lee’s family was blindsided by the turn in Syed’s case, they said. At one point, Phinn paused proceedings so that Lee’s brother, Young Lee, could speak to the courtroom via Zoom.

“This is not a podcast for me,” Young Lee told the court, choking up as he spoke. “This is real life: A never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.” He said he respects the criminal justice system and supports continued investigation, but that Syed’s conviction should stand.

On the latest episode of “Serial,” Koenig expressed continued disappointment in the criminal justice system. She originally embarked on her investigation, she said, to find out “obviously, who killed this young woman. But also, if everyone is doing their job right, how does a kid get convicted on evidence this shaky?”

Koenig’s conclusion: “Adnan’s case contains just about every chronic problem our system can cough up: Police using questionable interview methods. Prosecutors keeping crucial evidence from the defense. Slightly junky science. Extreme prison sentences. Juveniles treated as adults. How grindingly difficult it is to get your case back in court once you’ve been convicted.”

“Most of what the state put in that motion to vacate, all the actual evidence, was either known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999,” Koenig added. “So even on a day when the government publicly recognizes its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness. Because we’ve built a system that takes over 20 years to self-correct.”