The 18-year-old high school senior played varsity field hockey and lacrosse and managed the boys' wrestling team, and was due to graduate with honors with the class of 1999. She dated Adnan in 1998, dancing with the prom with him that year, but they were broken up by that December.
They had kept their relationship under wraps to their families due to cultural and religious differences. According to multiple accounts, the two were still friends, but whether or not Adnan was handling the split well or was far more angry and jealous than he let on became a central point of the investigation.
Lee was last seen alive on Jan. 13, 1999. Her body was discovered in Baltimore's Leakin Park on Feb. 9, 1999. She had been strangled.
At the time of her death, she was said to be dating a guy named Don, whom she'd met while they were both working at LensCrafters. He told police he was at work (albeit at a different store location than usual) when Lee disappeared and a store manager confirmed as much—but via Serial, we learned that the manager of the location he claimed to be working at was his mother. (Serial of course discussed Don at length, as did the various armchair investigators who rehashed and dug even deeper into the info relayed on the podcast.)
A memorial plaque was dedicated and two trees were planted in her honor at Woodlawn High.
The teen was painted as a normal, pot-smoking, not-too-troublesome senior at Woodlawn High School, a kid who liked to go to the mall and hang out with his friends, just like any other, and who, like Lee, was an honors student.
Syed is of Pakistani descent and Serial raised the question of whether his being Muslim affected how the cops and the court treated. The prosecution suggested he was a flight risk, despite his parents' lack of financial means and Adnan having never left the country before, let alone traveled to Pakistan.
The prosecution, led by Kevin Urick, successfully contended at trial that Syed arranged to have Lee meet him in a Best Buy parking lot, where he strangled her and then had Jay Wilds come and help him move Lee's body to Leakin Park. Wilds became a key witness for the prosecution.
When Syed was convicted at his second trial (the first was declared a mistrial), his attorney Charles H. Dorsey III pleaded on his behalf for a merciful sentence, insisting the murder was a "crime of passion" rather than proof that Syed was a killer who should be locked up forever. Syed continued to insist he was innocent at sentencing and stated his intention to appeal.
A judge vacated his conviction in 2016, but prosecutors appealed and it was reinstated in 2019. But after a year-long investigation led by the Baltimore State Attorney's Office, it was the prosecutors who filed to have his conviction vacated in 2022—and it was. After 23 years behind bars, Syed was put on house arrest Sept. 19. The state attorney dropped the charges on Oct. 11, and he was a free man.
Koenig, a veteran journalist and a producer on Ira Glass' seminal This American Life radio show, had no idea that her weekly deep dive into Syed's case—with executive producer Snyder—would turn into a cultural phenomenon. She also said she came into it with no preconceptions and was not trying to exonerate Adnan.
"I wasn't—and we weren't—trying to create problems where there were none," Koenig told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2014 after season one's 12-episode run ended. "...Obviously I don't want anyone to suffer because of the work I'm doing, but I also feel like there's a strong tradition of doing these kinds of investigative stories. And we weren't doing anything differently than we would do in any other story."
Talking to Syed (the sound of his collect call from prison became one of the podcast's identifying features) was "very complicated," she said. "A lot is going on in any one conversation with Adnan, which is...he might be innocent and he might be guilty. It's zero sum, a little bit, right?"
Koenig was in the courtroom on Sept. 14, 2022, when Syed's conviction was vacated.
"You might be asking what on earth happened," she said on a subsequent new episode of Serial. "I've spent the last few days trying to understand…The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent. They stopped short of exonerating him. Instead, they're 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."
She said that Hae's brother, Young Lee, addressed the judge via Zoom before she made her decision. "Young Lee tried to keep it together, but he couldn't," she said in describing the scene. "He also told the judge he believes in the justice system. He's not against a new investigation. He said to Judge Phinn, 'Make the right decision.'"
After giving testimony at Syed's murder trial, Wilds retreated into anonymity and refused on-the-record interview requests for Serial. In December 2014, after the podcast's season one finale aired, he told The Intercept in his first public interview that he felt Sarah Koenig had "demonized" him.
Wilds became a key witness for the prosecution, while the defense contended he was lying to protect himself. Koenig would raise the question of why Adnan, who at the end of the day didn't seem that close to Jay, would have enlisted him to help bury a body. She also spent a lot of time talking about the inconsistencies in Jay's story between his two interviews with detectives and his testimony at trial.
"People have to realize, we try cases in the real world," Kevin Urick, who prosecuted Syed, told The Intercept when asked about Jay's story changing multiple times. "We take our witnesses as we find them. We did not pick Jay to be Adnan's accomplice. Adnan picked Jay. Remember, Jay committed a crime here. He was an accomplice after the fact in a murder. A very serious crime...People can very seldom tell the same story the same way twice. If they did, I'd be very suspicious of it because that would look like it was rehearsed."
"My wife knows about my involvement in this case," Wilds said. "Because I eventually cooperated with the police and testified, I know that there are people back home who would consider me a snitch and would hurt me. So, for the most part, we've been really protective about our privacy."
He told The Intercept that Syed first showed him Hae's body in the trunk of his car outside Wilds' grandma's house, not in the Best Buy parking lot—a revelation that was not relayed during the trial or by Serial. But Wilds insisted he had nothing to do with the act of murdering Lee.
"There's nothing that's gonna change the fact that this guy drove up in front of my grandmother's house, popped the trunk, and had his dead girlfriend in the trunk," he said. "Anything that's going to make him innocent doesn't involve me. Hae was dead before she got to my house. Anything that makes Adnan innocent doesn't involve me. There is a specific point where I became involved in this. What happened before that, I don't know."
Adnan's lead defense attorney, whom according to Serial's reporting was dealing with a glut of health and financial issues while she was representing him, asked for and was granted a mistrial after jurors overheard the judge referring to her as a "liar" during a sidebar—a controversial move, Koenig surmised, as it seemed as though the trial was going the defense's way.
Gutierrez consented to being disbarred in 2001 after she was accused of mishandling client funds. Suffering from multiple sclerosis and various other ailments, she died of a heart attack in 2004. In asking for a new trial, Syed's legal team argued that Gutierrez made a critical mistake by not calling an eyewitness who said she'd seen the defendant at the library at the purported time of the killing and could have provided an alibi.
The attorney, activist and host of the podcasts Undisclosed and The 45th is the one who brought the case to Sarah Koenig's attention after seeing a 2001 article Koenig had written for the Baltimore Sun about Gutierrez's disbarment. Her younger brother was one of Syed's best friends growing up and she knew his family.
She wrote in 2014 about being inspired to at least attempt to influence the legal process after watching the documentary West of Memphis, about the ultimately successful fight (which became a big cause célèbre) to free three young men convicted of the 1999 murders of three little boys in West Memphis, Ark.
Chaudry is also the author of Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial and was an executive producer on HBO's The Case Against Adnan Syed—which is getting a new episode in light of the bombshell twist that is Syed no longer being convicted of murder.
The author of Confessions of a Serial Alibi wrote two letters to Syed after his arrest offering to testify—but she wasn't called to testify until it was to support his petition for a new trial. Chapman told the court that it was her choice to reach out to Syed in jail all those years ago, that no one asked her to. Koenig had tracked her down during the course of making Serial.
A security guard from the library testified at the retrial hearing that there were no cameras to confirm Chapman's story, and he didn't remember seeing Syed. He admitted on cross that it was as long time ago, so he might not remember everything about that day.
"I am at the point where I'm happy with not having an answer. Well, I wouldn't say 'happy,' but I am willing to accept that I will never know," Chapman told the Observer a few months after testifying. "And I'm at the point now where although I care if an innocent person is behind bars, I believe it's the court's decision to establish guilt or innocence and that no amount of racking my brain is going to help the situation."
She added, "If you can just remind people that everyone involved in this case is just a normal person. We didn't ask to be bumped into the spotlight the way that we all have been, and we're trying to do the best that we can."