Why Adnan Syed’s case from Serial became a national phenomenon
A judge’s decision to vacate his murder conviction caps off nearly a decade of evolution in media, culture, and the law.
What are 360s? Grid’s answer to stories that deserve a fuller view.
Adnan Syed, whose story was chronicled in the true crime hit podcast “Serial” in 2014, has rocketed back to the top of the news after a judge vacated his conviction for the murder of his former high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when he was 17 years old.
Syed maintained his innocence through the 23 years he was in prison. He was released Monday when a judge vacated his conviction. Prosecutors were given 30 days to decide whether to hold a new trial.
Over the course of a dozen episodes, “Serial” creator Sarah Koenig brought listeners — tens of millions of them — along on her quest to determine whether Syed is telling the truth about his innocence and whether he was given a fair shake in court. Her series inspired a groundswell of support for Syed, including legal assistance from top defense lawyers.
The trajectory of the Syed’s story — from 1999 when Syed was arrested, to 2014 when it his case aired on “Serial,” to now — shows how much cultural norms have changed since the rise of Black Lives Matter, digital-first news and the #MeToo movement. Looking at the details through lenses of the law, media, race and gender, some elements of “Serial” proved to be ahead of their time, while others show their age.
Through her reporting, Koenig raised doubts about the fairness of Syed’s trial, though the judge’s decision this week isn’t based on evidence revealed in the show. A new law took effect in Maryland last year that allows people who were convicted of a crime when they were a minor, and served 20 years or more, to ask for a reduced sentence. When prosecutors started to look at Syed’s case, they found problems.
“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent,” Koenig said in a special episode of “Serial” she aired Tuesday. “They stopped short of exonerating him. Instead, they are saying that back in 1999, ‘We didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough. We relied on evidence we shouldn’t have. And we broke the rules when we prosecuted. This wasn’t an honest conviction.’”
Prosecutors said there are two alternative suspects who weren’t revealed to the defense. One of them, they said, had the means and motive to commit the murder. Koenig said Tuesday that prosecutors seemed unlikely to bring a new case against Syed.
Adnan Syed’s case sits at the intersection of hot-button social, cultural and technological changes in American life that have unfolded since 1999. It’s a saga that played out at intersections of the American justice system, race, media, religion, and gender violence. And it’s reached people natively in the digital era in a way that made the connection to the case more personal than it would in another medium.
The prosecution of Adnan Syed
In a second trial, prosecutors argued largely the same case as in the first: that Syed, then 17, strangled his classmate, Hae Min Lee, 18, out of anger that she had ended their romantic relationship. The prosecutors alleged that he then buried her body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, pronounced “Linkin Park” in the show, with help from his friend, Jay Wilds.
Wilds agreed to testify against Syed in both trials in exchange for a plea deal that would allow him to avoid prison. His testimony sets the foundation for the prosecution’s case. Many listeners to the show picked up on Wilds’ shifting story. He changed the order of events in one meeting with the police to another. Syed’s supporters point to these inconsistencies as a reason to doubt his reliability as a witness — a witness on which the whole prosecution hinged.
The prosecution maintained that the relevant pieces of Wilds’ story never changed, and, even if he lied about everything else, cellphone records corroborated his story and he knew something important: the location of Lee’s missing car.
The prosecution’s case flowed from there. Their evidence included the following:
- Wilds took the police to Lee’s missing car. It was later established she’d been strangled in the back seat.
- Wilds and Syed agreed that Syed had given his car and cellphone to Wilds that day. (Wilds claimed Syed said he’d call when he needed a ride after murdering Lee. Syed said he loaned his stuff to Wilds so Wilds could run an errand.)
- At 3:32 p.m., phone records show a two-minute call between Syed’s cell and his girlfriend, Nisha, who Wilds did not know. The call, prosecutors argued, put Syed with Wilds during the time he claimed to be at school. (Syed said that the call could have been Wilds making a “butt dial.”)
- Police reported a partial handprint that matched Syed’s on a map book in the back seat of Lee’s car. The book was missing the page mapping Leakin Park. (Syed said he had been in Lee’s car many times.)
- Wilds said he and Syed drove to Leakin Park around 7 p.m. and buried Lee’s body. At trial, prosecutors presented evidence from nearby cell towers that showed Syed was in the vicinity of the park on the night Lee disappeared. (Evidence discovered in 2016 cast doubt on the quality of the cell tower evidence, but a judge did not allow a new trial.)
Wilds filled in the gaps in the story in his testimony, claiming Syed called him that afternoon and showed him Lee’s body in the trunk of her car. Wilds said he helped Syed dump the car and later bury Lee.
Post-Serial legal battles
Since “Serial” aired in 2014, top defense lawyers have come to Syed’s aid, making a series of arguments to have his case reopened. Key moments include:
June 30, 2016: A judge declared a mistrial, but that decision was overturned two years later. The claim had been based on new evidence that wasn’t disclosed at trial. Reporting on the podcast “Undisclosed” discovered a cover sheet that accompanied a fax with AT&T tower data that said outgoing calls could reliably establish location, but incoming calls, like the calls to Syed’s phone around 7 p.m., could not. His lawyers argued there was no evidence, then, putting Syed near where Lee was buried.
October 2021: Syed’s lawyers filed a petition under a new law that allows people convicted of crimes as minors, and who have served 20 years or more, to ask for a shortened sentence. Prosecutors for the city of Baltimore begin a yearlong investigation into the handling of Syed’s case.
September 2022: A judge takes the recommendation of the Baltimore city attorney and vacates the trial on the grounds that the prosecution did not properly disclose to the defense evidence of two alternative suspects, evidence that wasn’t part of the “Serial” podcast.
What’s next: Prosecutors have until October to decide whether to put Syed back on trial.
Serial pioneered a new, addictive genre
Koenig’s storytelling turned “Serial” into a viral success and inspired similar true crime podcasts. She weaves her reporting process and her thoughts into the show, drawing the audience into the investigation along with her. On one level, the approach felt familiar: an investigative reporter seemingly sets out to overturn the conviction of an innocent man who had been taken down during a racially tinged trial. But her storytelling and the story itself proved more complex and far less predictable.
Rabia Chaudry, a Washington lawyer, who first pressed Koenig to investigate the case, later become a critic of the show. Chaudry, a family friend of Syed’s, believes Koenig should have taken a clear stance on Syed’s innocence, in which Chaudry steadfastly believes. Koenig said at the end of the series she probably wouldn’t have voted to convict Syed, but she never revealed her personal feelings. Chaudry has since aired her own podcast and written a book about the case.
Other critics questioned what exactly Koenig was producing. Was it journalism? Or was it entertainment? Her approach created cliffhangers and drama in a way a newspaper story would not. In the first episode she sets up the show as a quest to pin down where one teenage boy was for 20 minutes a decade-and-a-half before, an intriguing question:
“Before I get into why I’ve been doing this, I just want to point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it’s really hard to account for your time, in a detailed way, I mean.”
She goes on to share a back and forth she has with a teen who tries to recall what he did on a certain day the previous week, a fruitless exercise.
As the show unfolds, it becomes clear that the day in question is no ordinary day for Syed. The police called Syed that evening to tell him Lee had gone missing and asked if he’d seen or heard from her. He said he had not.
There was no Twitter or Facebook when the crime took place in 1999, but there were digital records that shed light on some of the story, including records that show Syed, who called and spoke to Lee nearly daily, never called Lee after hearing from the police, or in the days and weeks that followed.
How the media reaches an audience is ever changing. Koenig’s work was recognized that year with a prestigious Peabody Award for “innovations of form and its compelling, drilling account of how guilt, truth and reality are decided.”
Did Islamophobia doom Syed from the start?
“Serial” attempted to grapple with the extent to which Syed’s background as a Muslim and the son of Pakistani immigrants shaped his trial. Koenig said she encountered many examples of casual racism in conversations with people such as Syed’s teachers. In interviews with jurors, Syed’s background shaped their thinking.
Prosecutors wove Syed’s cultural and religious life into the case against him. They pointed out that he had to keep his relationship with Lee a secret from his family, as they would not approve of dating, an act that showed he was capable of deception. Prosecutors argued that when Lee broke things off, as Koenig put the argument, “he put everything on the line — his family, his relationships at the mosque — to run around with this girl. So that when she broke up with him eight months later, he was left with nothing, and he was outraged. He couldn’t take it, and he killed her.”
They went so far as to invoke honor killings. In one episode of “Serial,” Koenig describes the prosecution’s approach:
“Prosecutor Casey Murphy tells the jury, ‘The crime was not about love, it was about pride.’ And in his opening argument, you’ve heard this language before in an earlier episode but it bears repeating, prosecutor Kevin Urick talks about how Adnan reacted when Hae broke up with him. ‘He became enraged, he felt betrayed that his honor had been besmirched and he became very angry and he set out to kill Hae Min Lee.’”
Koenig went on to notice that “honor” came up in other places in her reporting, including in a confidential report she found in police files, titled “Report on Islamic Fad and Culture with Emphasis on Pakistan, a Comparative Study relevant to the Upcoming Trial of Adnan Syed.”
She quotes: “‘For [Lee] to have another man dishonor both Adnan Syed and his belief structure, it is acceptable for a Muslim man to control the actions of a woman by completely eliminating her.’ It goes on, ‘within this harsh culture he has not violating any code he has defended his honor.’ Finally, ‘For many ethnic Pakistani men incidence like this are commonplace and in Pakistan this would not have been a crime but probably a question of honor.’”
Koenig said she doesn’t believe that anti-Muslim bias drove the case against Syed, but she doesn’t discount that discrimination was there and could have played a role.
Supporters of Syed, however, say it was at the heart of the case.
As Syed’s mother, Shamim Rahman, put it: “I still believe because he was raised a Muslim. Discrimination. And everybody feel, the whole community, because he was a Muslim child that’s why they took him. It was easy for them to take him.”
Domestic violence before many people said ‘Me Too’
A search of the transcripts of “Serial” brings up no instances of the phrase “domestic violence,” which is how the lead prosecutor, Kevin Urick, described the case. “It was pretty much a run-of-the-mill domestic-violence murder,” Urick said in an interview with the Intercept after “Serial” aired.
He went on to say that motive isn’t a necessary element of the crime, that the prosecution doesn’t need to establish a motive for a conviction. Prosecutors have to prove that a defendant committed the murder, not why.
Koenig brings up the question of motive in multiple episodes. Many sources in the podcast wondered why a popular, good student who cared about his family, who was active at his mosque and participated in sports would commit murder. He had so much to lose.
In Episode 2, Koenig comes down hard on the argument from prosecutors that Syed committed a premeditated act.
At this point, I’m going to say flat out that I don’t buy the motive for this murder, at least not how the State explained it. I just don’t see it. Not one person says he was acting strangely after [he and Lee] broke up. He and Hae, again by all accounts were still friends. He was interested in other girls. He was working at his job. He was headed to college. About two weeks after his arrest, he gets an orientation packet from the University of Maryland. I don’t think he was some empty shell of a kid who betrayed his family and his religion and was now left with nothing and conjured up a murderous rage for a girl that broke his heart. I simply don’t buy it. And the reason I don’t buy it is because no one who knew him, then or now, says that’s how it was.Sarah Koenig - Serial Season 1, Episode 02: The Breakup
Koenig’s position is understandable in that she’s drawing a line against Islamophobia that had stained the case, but in doing so she slid into another pernicious narrative that a likable, typical man can’t be abusive to his significant other.
Koenig didn’t fail to notice behaviors that indicated that Syed could, at times, be perceived as threatening. She described diary entries in which Lee writes about being uncomfortable with Syed’s possessive, controlling behavior. Koenig contrasts those with positive entries.
It could be true that Lee’s reflections are just ambivalence about a relationship. But as writer Elizabeth Brocklehurst put it at the time, they could also be “classic warning signs of intimate partner violence,” an issue Koenig did not specifically address.
In one instance, Koenig dismisses that Syed had written “I’m going to kill” on a note from Lee asking him to respect her decision to break up with him. Koenig described it as “a detail you’d find in a cheesy detective novel.” Koenig did not include an incident in which, according to court documents, a teacher described a time Lee asked her to help hide her from Syed after a fight.
Whether or not Syed is guilty in this case, the idea that a man’s outward appearance makes it improbable that he’d commit domestic violence is an idea that passed muster with editors and producers in 2014, but would be almost unthinkable to include in an investigative reporting project today. The #MeToo era changed coverage of sexual violence, drawing attention to the way women are portrayed and their stories questioned. Public opinion has shifted on the issue and it has forced media to do some soul searching about behavior in its own ranks.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.