In February 1999, the body of high schooler Hae Min Lee was found partially buried in Baltimore's Leakin Park. A year later, her ex-boyfriend, fellow high schooler Adnan Syed, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
Odds are, you know this story already. The 2014 podcast Serial turned Lee and Syed into household names. By 2016, the podcast had been downloaded more than 100 million times. Serial was a participatory podcast — as NPR's Sarah Koenig investigated the decades-old crime, amateur sleuths joined in on intense Reddit threads.
Meanwhile, as a pop culture sensation raged, Syed remained in prison. Has intense media scrutiny spurred by Serial and by later works, like the recent HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed, out March 10, changed Syed's fate? Not yet — but it might.
Syed remains in prison. However, for the first time in nearly 20 years, he'll have a chance at making his case again. In 2016, a Baltimore judge vacated Syed's conviction, setting the stage for a retrial. Judge Martin Welch was unconvinced by the reliability of cell phone location evidence used in the trial.
On March 29, 2018, Maryland's second-highest court upheld the lower court's decision and ruled that Syed should be granted a new trial on all charges. In a written statement, the three-judge panel of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals cited Syed's ineffective legal counsel — but singled out a different misstep than the lower court did. Syed's attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, did not contact a key alibi witness. Classmate Asia McClain claimed she saw Syed at the public library at the same time prosecutors said he was strangling his ex-girlfriend. Gutierrez never checked surveillance cameras at the library or reached out to McClain.
Essentially, the courts in both 2016 and 2018 were investigating whether Gutierrez provided defense so inadequate it violated Syed's constitutional rights. Gutierrez died in 2004.
Syed's family and legal team were ecstatic about the news of a retrial. "We're thrilled. It's been a really long wait. It's been hard, it's been stressful, obviously not just for us but for Adnan who's now been in prison for 19 years," Syed's lawyer, Justin Brown, said during a Periscope live stream in March 2018.
But in July 2018, Syed and his team were handed another setback. The state of Maryland appealed the Court of Special Appeals' decision granting a new ruling and sought to reinstate Syed's murder conviction. Prosecutors claim that expecting a defense counsel to investigate all possible alibi witnesses is impossible. In November 2018, lawyers argued the case at Maryland's highest court. Judges are still deliberating.
Syed remains in legal limbo – but as The Case Against Adnan Syed shows, his story is still being told. The four-part HBO documentary is also a heartbreaking tribute to Lee and the vibrant, kind young woman she was. So much scrutiny has been devoted to Syed's legal woes. While those issues remain prominent in the HBO documentary, so too does the human cost of the debacle — from Lee's death to the many people whose lives were forever marked by this crime.