Millions of Americans know about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee for the podcast “Serial.” Over 12 episodes in 2014, “Serial” chronicled the murder of Lee, a high school student near Baltimore, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
On the podcast, a team of journalists led by “Serial” host Sarah Koenig chronicled the key issues in the case against Syed: The prosecution’s timeline is unacceptable; Syed’s defense attorney failed to pursue significant leads; and cell phone logs that allegedly tracked Syed’s location were questioned. As a result, attention led the courts to reconsider the case, but not release Syed.
Yesterday, however, a judge released him after 23 years behind bars. The judge, Melissa Phinn, overturned her conclusion after Baltimore prosecutors said last week they no longer had confidence in it. “At this point, we’ll take the shackles off Mr. Syed,” Phinn announced. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether they will seek a new trial or drop charges.
For today’s newsletter, I spoke with Sarah Koenig, who was in the courtroom yesterday. And I encourage you to listen to a special episode of “Serial” released this morning, which talks about the big turning point of the case. (Sarah remains an executive producer on Serial Productions, which was acquired by The New York Times Company in 2020)
David: Sarah, you’ve been following this case for almost a decade, and Adnan Syed has been in prison for over two decades. Last week, how did it feel to hear prosecutors wanted to release him?
Sarah: I was socked. I don’t see this happening at all. One of the first things I did was call Adnan’s brother and then his mother – they told me they didn’t know either. It appears that prosecutors have filed a motion to release him.
But the shocking part is that this comes from the state side. I felt almost disoriented for about a day. Like the city prosecutor’s office suddenly pulled out a rubber mask and underneath was a scowling defense attorney.
David: And how was the scene in the court yesterday?
Sarah: Inside the courtroom was packed but very orderly, at times quiet and emotional. Outside, however, when Adnan stepped onto the sidewalk: mayhem.
David: Do you notice similarities between the argument the prosecutor is making now and the arguments Syed’s attorney has made in the past?
Sarah: A lot of what the state is saying in this move could feel like a slander against the defense camp. Many of the same arguments – unreliable witness testimony, unreliable cell phone evidence. The timeline of crime doesn’t keep up. But there are also a few new things.
The main thing is to reveal that the state has not provided information about a possible substitute suspect in the crime. It’s a bit of a bomb.
David: Who is this alternate suspect?
Sarah: There are two of them actually. The state is not naming these people, but detectives certainly knew who they were at the time. The state says that these suspects (either or both) have criminal histories related to the crime. And one of them has a family connection to the location where Hae Min Lee’s car was found.
But the most damning thing is that a few people told the prosecutor’s office at the time that one of the suspects had a motive to kill Hae, and even threatened to do so. And that information was never communicated to the defense. Only that – not handing over vital evidence – could be the basis for overturning the murder conviction.
David: When I finished listening to the first part of “Serial” many years ago, I had two thoughts. One, if I were a juror, I would vote to acquit, because you certainly raised reasonable doubts. Two, I think it’s very likely that Syed has committed a crime. Am I right to think that you and your colleagues are torn enough that you expect different listeners to come to different conclusions?
Sarah: Of course, we know people will come to different conclusions. Except for some gunpowder evidence, which we didn’t find (and apparently no one else has), there’s no way for us to say definitively what happened. But what we showed in our story was that the progress of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems. That means the people who convicted Adnan of murder, surname don’t know what happened either.
And so this boy was sent to prison for life at the age of 18, based on an incorrect story. That’s what we want people to think: Even questioning Adnan’s guilt or innocence, do we agree with such a functioning system?
David: The latest events in this case are reminiscent of an explosion from “In the Dark,” a podcast that reportedly helped free Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who had been jailed for more than 20 years, for murders he clearly didn’t commit. Wrongful conviction seems to be a big problem in the US What part of the Syed case do you think is systematic?
Sarah: Place to start! Questionable interrogation tactics and police tunnel vision; an excessive system that cannot properly interrogate evidence; prosecutors withhold evidence from the defense; our country’s tolerance for insane long prison sentences; minors are treated like adults when science tells us they are not; racial discrimination; how difficult it is to get the system to review your case once you have been convicted; prosecutors and policemen who don’t make themselves policemen and then mitigate when they’re accused of doing something wrong. It’s pretty much it – you name it, this case has it.
And while I’m here: There’s nothing unusual about the presence of these systemic problems in Adnan’s case. No.
For more: Here’s a timeline of Syed’s legal journey.
Last year, a lawyer warned Donald Trump that he could face legal liability if he did not return documents he had taken from the White House.
The Texas sheriff has opened a criminal investigation into migrants’ flights from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard, saying the migrants were duped.
Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia plans to campaign next month for Kari Lake, the Arizona gubernatorial candidate who is refusing to vote, Politico reported.
New MLB rules: Courtyard clocks, larger soles, ban changes and more are coming to baseball next year. Expect tough records, shorter games, and more stolen bases in the latest version of America’s pastime.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Farewell to Phantom
“The Phantom of the Opera” will end its 35-year run on Broadway in February. By the time it ends, it will be performing for 13,925 performances – more than any other show.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh told The Times: “You don’t want to run a great show. “It has always been one of my mantras throughout my long career: There is an art to ending a show as well as opening a show.”
It will be years before any show hits the record set by “Phantom”. The next longest works (as of September 11) are: “Chicago” (1996), 10,114 performances; “The Lion King” (1997), 9,740 performances; “Wicked” (2003), 7,268 performances; and “The Book of Mormon” (2011), 4,131 performances
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook?
Yesterday’s Spelling Bee pangrams are torrential, bowling, blow and wobble. Here is today’s puzzle.
Here is today’s Mini Crossword and the clue: Forgery (four letters).
And this is the Wordle of today. Then use our bot to get better.
Thank you for spending part of the morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. – David
PS Lauren Jackson, an Audio audience editor, is joining The Morning as a writer in London. Welcome to the team, Lauren.