Adnan Syed, a convicted man turned household name after his appearance in NPR’s Serial podcast, has had his convictions tossed and was granted release from prison pending a new trial — 22 years after being found guilty for the murder of fellow high school student Hae Min Lee.
After numerous attempts and retrials spurred by the internet’s obsession with the case, a Baltimore, Maryland, judge vacated multiple convictions against Syed on Monday, Sept. 29, including murder, kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment. The judge ordered that he would be released immediately from custody without bail and held in detention at home, awaiting a decision from prosecutors on whether or not to drop the charges or retry Syed. The decision cited unreliable evidence and the introduction of alternative suspects as concerns about the original trial process.
Syed has long retained his claims of innocence in the horrific 1999 murder of 18-year-old Lee, whom he had previously dated. Syed was 17 years old when he was arrested and has served 23 years of his conviction. In 2014, he was chosen as the subject of the now critically-acclaimed crime podcast Serial, which documented the trial and details of his case at the behest of his family and friends, who had been trying to prove that Syed’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice. The show was an instant viral hit, and had accumulated 40 million downloads by the end of 2014.
Following the show’s release, Syed’s case continued as an internet conversation starter for millions of listeners and intrigued bystanders around the world, most of whom took it on as a symbol of an unjust and broken legal system (a topic Serial has continued to cover in its multi-season run, each of which covers a new case or legal system-adjacent story). Others contended that the focus of both the case and the podcast should have been on the victim Lee, and continue to believe that Syed is guilty.
In 2018, Syed was granted a new trial after a judge ruled that his right to “effective assistance of counsel” had been violated in his original trial, but in 2019, that ruling was overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Syed remained in prison under the original conviction. In 2021, his case was brought to Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, and, after Maryland passed the Juvenile Restoration Act, which allows courts to reevaluate juvenile convictions after they’ve served 20 years, to the Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Maryland state officials say this decision is in the interest of “justice and fairness” following a poorly-executed trial. “It is our promise that we will do everything we can to bring justice to the Lee family. That means continuing to utilize all available resources to bring a suspect or suspects to justice and hold them accountable,” said Becky Feldman, chief of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit.
Speaking in court on Monday, Lee’s family expressed their continued grief over how the case is treated by the media and the cycle of new trials and trending news. Host and the on-the-ground reporter of Serial, Sarah Koenig, was also there in Baltimore as Monday’s verdict came in; the show has already announced it’s producing a follow-up episode to discuss the new ruling.
True crime media, including podcasts and the still-growing TikTok obsession with recounting violent crimes and trials, has risen in interest in recent years, even amid intense criticism that the genre violates the privacy and ethical boundaries of victims and their families. Syed’s story was an earlier form of this type of internet obsession with violent crime against women, but the compelling story also brought to light a national conversation about the treatment of people of color in the justice system.
As true crime consumers continue to follow Syed’s trial — and rightfully criticize the country’s unjust incarceration of many — it leaves a question of where Lee, both her life and her death, fit into the digital conversation.