Serial podcast: A timeline of Adnan Syed’s journey to freedom after 20 years behind bars

His conviction was overturned due to new evidence which may prove his innocence

Adnan Syed is a familiar name to anyone in the true crime community. Yesterday, a podcast called Serial, helped to propel him to freedom. The podcast managed to generate pressure from the public which launched an investigation into Syed’s trial.

While much of the world was transfixed by the Queen’s funeral, his conviction was overturned as further DNA investigations are ordered. If you’ve never listened to Serial, the information that’s come out can be overwhelming. Here’s the rundown of events:

1999: A body is found in Baltimore

After Hae Min Lee was declared missing, her body was eventually found buried in a Baltimore park. Since she was found soon after she had broken up with high school sweetheart, Syed, suspicions arose around him as someone so enraged by the break-up, he killed his ex-girlfriend.

Syed’s first trial, in December 1999, was declared a mistrial, which therefore warranted a retrial.

2000: A life sentence

The second trial took place, which found him guilty of murder and Syed was sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence throughout the process and continued to do so during his time in prison.

2014: Koenig’s case against Maryland

Serial was released and this reinvigorated the attention towards Syed’s trial. The series was the brainchild of long-time radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig. 

She used her journalistic chops to spend more than a year digging into Syed’s case and then report her findings in long-form segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and not only made the true crime genre what it is today but also the podcast form as a whole.

Koenig’s work covered everything from the breakup between Syed and Lee to the inconsistencies in witness testimony, to the lack of physical evidence.

This lack of physical evidence included the hairs found on Lee’s body, which did not match Adnan and the dozens of soil samples taken from his clothing, shoes, car and room, which returned negative results for matching soil from Leakin Park.

2016: The case for ineffective counsel

A lower state court ordered a retrial for Syed because his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel. 

2019: Confusion in court

The retrial was later denied by a higher court in Maryland in a 4-3 decision. 

In the US, a court can agree that even if counsel had been ineffective, if they believe that different counsel would not have changed the outcome of the trial, they can deny a retrial. This rule was cited in Syed’s case. 

The Supreme Court also declined to review Syed’s case.

2022: Overturned and overwhelmed 

Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying a lengthy investigation conducted with the defence had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the conviction of Syed. This resulted in his conviction being overturned.

Judge Phinn said, “All right Mr Syed, you’re free to join your family,” 

She ordered Syed to be placed in home detention with GPS location monitoring. The judge also said the state must decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.

Lee’s family have expressed how betrayed they feel betrayed by the prosecution during the hearing, with her brother, stating, “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life.”

While an assistant state attorney Becky Feldman said: “I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the correct person accountable.”

So, what happens now?

The “DNA analysis” which ought to “certify his innocence,” according to state attorney Marilyn Mosby, is yet to be released. On a broader level, this case has brought further attention to flaws in the American justice system which affect the lives of defendants every day – and most of them don’t have a righteously angry podcast audience advocating for them.

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