Digesting Serial: Everything You Need to Know About the Adnan Syed Murder Case

Oral arguments begin in Baltimore today ahead of proposed retrial for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee

By Natalie Finn Jun 08, 2017 12:00 PMTags
Adnan Sayed, Hae Min Lee Serial

Are the scales of justice about to tip in another direction for Adnan Syed?

One of the most famous not-originally-famous people to have his story publicly reexamined in the midst of the true crime boom that has nearly every network angling for a piece, attorneys for the now 36-year-old Syed are due in a Baltimore court today as oral arguments begin to hear the prosecution's appeal of a 2016 decision to grant Syed a retrial for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Syed was convicted of first-degree murder in February 2000 and, four months later, was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years. He first appealed his conviction in 2012, arguing he hadn't been adequately represented at trial by attorney Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004. The appeal was denied.

Only so many people have their advocates, those who believe that something went wrong along the way with the justice system, or that they're downright innocent of the crime they were convicted of. But even when they have that support, how many of those cases ever make headlines, let alone become fodder for a full-on cultural sensation?

Stars' Memorable True Crime Roles on TV

"At the time the case was going on, there was no local press coverage," lead prosecutor Kevin Urick, who's since gone into private practice, recalled to The Intercept in 2015. "When the appeal was argued, there was no press coverage of that either. And the court of special appeals felt there was nothing new or novel about the arguments that were made in the appellate brief. It was not even a published opinion."

Karl Merton Ferron/TNS via ZUMA Wire

Then, almost 14 years after he was convicted, Syed's story made its way to journalist and This American Life producer Sarah Koenig. She in turn dug in and emerged with her hit Serial podcast, the first season of which probed the details of Lee's murder, the investigation, evidence, witness statements and the trial in a quest to see if, in fact, justice was done.

Koenig didn't proclaim to know either way, at one point in the series returning to what Adnan's friend Laura, reluctant to believe he was guilty but at a loss to come up with any other explanation, had told her—"Well then, who the f--k did it?"

But in large part thanks to the massive amount of publicity drummed up by Serial, the most downloaded podcast of all time, Syed's case was retaken up by the Baltimore City judicial system and his conviction was vacated last June. His new defense team argued again that he'd been a victim of faulty counsel the first time around, Gutierrez not only having failed to call a possibly key alibi witness but also failing to properly question the prosecution's expert about data gleaned from cell phone towers that claimed to pinpoint where Adnan was when Hae was killed.

It was the handling of the cell tower data that formed the basis for the judge's decision. The same judge who denied his first request ruled that questions about the cell tower data should have been raised during the original trial.

Syed was not granted bail, however, so he has remained locked up at North Branch Correctional Institution in western Maryland while he waits for the next decision to be made in his case. He's not expected to appear in court today.

If Serial's Adnan Syed Didn't Murder Hae Min Lee, Then Who Did?

"It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae," the victim's family said in a statement released by the Maryland Attorney General's office before the new trial was granted on June 30, 2016.

"Unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials — so many witnesses, so much evidence."

"To think there was an oops or an oversight back then, let alone a failure of constitutional dimension, is just not consistent with what we are now seeing in the defense's file," deputy prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah, who is now fighting against the retrial for the state along with State Attorney General Brian Frosh, also told Inside Edition before Syed's conviction was thrown out.

"We have been fighting for this day for, I think it's been about eight years now, and it's been a grueling fight, and there have been a lot of disappointments along the way, and there were times when it looked like we had lost," Syed's new lead attorney, C. Justin Brown, told reporters at the time. "But we made it. We got a new trial."

Once the judge had granted the new trial, the state promptly appealed.

As oral arguments get under way this week as to whether or not that new trial should proceed, here's a rundown of the major players in the case (and its aftermath) so far:

Rabia Chaudry

The attorney, activist and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace 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 co-hosts the podcast Undisclosed, another favorite of true crime aficionados, and is the author of Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.

Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder & the Rest of the Serial Team

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 insists 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 Adnan (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?"

With Syed's case very much still in the news several years later, and the national news at that, Koenig again reflected on the public's reaction to Serial.

"I felt very confused. I was so confused," she told NPR in April 2017. "You know, we literally— we made it from my basement in my house because that was the quietest place. And, you know, as we got going I was really just living in the basement. And so it felt like I was, like, this troll person. And then, like, I came into the light and there were all these people looking at me. And I was like, what is happening? Like, I was just in the basement."

She and Snyder made another interesting but ultimately less engrossing second season of Serial, about Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for five years but after being released was accused of being a traitorous deserter.

The phenom quotient is high again, however, with S-Town, the latest podcast from Serial Productions' Koenig and Julie Snyder which, unlike Serial, was released all at once in a seven-episode bingeable chunk. Hosted by Brian Reed, the show delves into the life of Woodstock, Ala., resident John B. McLemore and…to say any more would be giving it away.

Hae Min Lee

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 by Serial.)

"I would like to forgive Adnan Syed, but as of now, I just don't know how I could," Lee's South Korean-born mother, Youn Wha Kim, testified through an interpreter at Syed's sentencing hearing (per the Baltimore Sun). "When I die, my daughter will die with me. As long as I live, my daughter is buried in my heart."

A memorial plaque was dedicated and two trees were planted in her honor at Woodlawn High.

Adnan Syed

By those who believed in his innocence, the teen was painted as a normal, pot-smoking, not-too-troublesome senior student 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 the question of whether his being Muslim affected how the cops and the court treated him has been raised. 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 been to Pakistan.

The prosecution, led by Kevin Urick, successfully contended 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, attorney Charles H. Dorsey III pleaded to the judge 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.

Jay Wilds

After giving testimony at Syed's trial, he 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 the fact that Jay's story changed 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 Adnan first showed him Hae's body in the trunk of his car outside Jay's grandma's house, not in the Best Buy parking lot—a revelation that was not relayed during the trial or by Serial. But Jay insists 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."

Cristina Gutierrez

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.

Asia McClain Chapman

The potential alibi witness in question. She wrote two letters to Adnan after his arrest offering to testify—but she wasn't called to testify until last year, 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 Asia's story, and he didn't remember seeing Adnan. He admitted on cross that it was as long time ago, so he might not remember everything about that day.

Chapman penned a book about the case that came out last year, Confessions of a Serial Alibi. The book ends on an ambiguous note about Syed's fate.

"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 last year, 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 later 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."

C. Justin Brown

The Maryland native and partner at Brown & Nieto in Baltimore is Syed's new lead defense attorney.

"I've always felt it's an honor to be able to represent Adnan," Brown told reporters immediately after the judge issued his opinion overturning Syed's conviction in June 2016. "I am truly inspired by [his family's] faith in me, to let me keep going as lead counsel in this case...They're the best clients that any lawyer can ever wish for. That goes for Adnan, it goes for his parents, that goes for his brother. The whole family's fantastic."

He's since been joined by a pro bono team from firm Hogan Lovells to assist with the case. "If the state elects to proceed with a retrial, we intend to tap into our extensive trial experience and many years of handling innocence cases to work to ensure that Adnan receives the best legal defense possible," Hogan Lovells office managing partner Steve Barley said in a statement in July 2016 when they joined Brown as co-counsel.

Arguments commence today in Baltimore as to whether to proceed with the retrial. In its appeal, the Maryland Attorney General's Office is arguing that the Circuit Court judge ruled on factors beyond the court's scope, namely the viability of the cell tower evidence.

Per the Baltimore Sun, since-retired Judge Martin Welch had written in his opinion, "The court finds that trial counsel's performance fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment when she failed to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert regarding a disclaimer obtained as part of pre-trial discovery."

In what had to have been a first, Welch acknowledged a certain podcast's role in the process that brought Adnan Syed's case before him once again.

"This case represents a unique juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest caused by modern media," he wrote. But, the Sun reported, Welch said he did not listen to Serial

"Regardless of the public interest surrounding this case," Welch wrote, "the court used its best efforts to address the merits of [Syed's] petition for post-conviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court, unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion."