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Adnan Syed’s Murder Conviction Was Just Reinstated—Why The ‘Serial’ Subject Might Be Going Back To Jail

"Serial" was the true-crime podcast that started it all.
Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed. Getty Images

True crime podcasts are a dime a dozen these days, but back in 2014, Serial was a game-changer. It has also been a life-changer for Adnan Syed who was released on September 20, 2022, after spending 23 years incarcerated for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, only to have his conviction reinstated a mere six months later.

Millions of people know about Adnan’s case thanks to Serial, a podcast led by Sarah Koenig and her team of investigative journalists. In weekly episodes, their reporting cast doubts on the prosecutor’s case against Adnan as well as the competence of his defense team, though she told NPR at the time that she sent out to report on, not necessarily exonerate Adnan. “I’m not here to exonerate Adnan,” she said. “I’m here to report this story. I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I might find evidence that he’s guilty, and we should all be prepared for that.” After two decades behind bars, Adnan Syed’s sentence was vacated and on October 11, 2022, prosecutors announced they were dropping murder charges. “Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man,” Adnan’s lawyer, Erica J. Suter, said in a statement, per the New York Times. “The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit.”

Where is Adnan Syed now?

Where is Adnan Syed now? The Serial podcast subject has had his murder conviction reinstated by a Maryland appellate court on March 28, 2023. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said a lower court had violated the rights of the victim’s brother, Young Lee, to attend a key September hearing when a judge vacated Adnan’s conviction, leading to his release. “Because the circuit court violated Mr. Lee’s right to notice of, and his right to attend, the hearing on the State’s motion to vacate … this Court has the power and obligation to remedy those violations, as long we can do so without violating Mr. Syed’s right to be free from double jeopardy,” the court’s opinion said, per CNN. “We remand for a new, legally compliant, and transparent hearing on the motion to vacate, where Mr. Lee is given notice of the hearing that is sufficient to allow him to attend in person, evidence supporting the motion to vacate is presented, and the court states its reasons in support of its decision,” it added.

Adnan’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, Erica Suter, told the press that he doesn’t believe his client will return to jail. “There is no basis for re-traumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon. For the time being, Adnan remains a free man,” he said in a statement provided to CNN by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “We remain optimistic that justice will be done. We intend to seek review in Maryland’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Maryland, and will continue to fight until Adnan’s convictions are fully vacated.”

Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Adnan was initially released because Baltimore judge Melissa Phinn overturned his murder conviction on September 20, 2022. Prosecutors discovered undisclosed evidence implicating two other suspects; Adnan was released from jail and placed in home detention. The State had 30 days to decide whether it would pursue a new trial or drop the charges against Adnan, the latter of which they have now done. On October 11, 2022, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender said in a statement that the state’s attorney dropped the charges against Adnan because of the results of DNA testing “that excluded Mr. Syed from the DNA recovered from the evidence.”

“The State lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” Koenig told the New York Times before Adnan’s exoneration, that these two people were known to detectives at the time of the crime but that information was never handed over to his defense. “The most damning thing is that a couple of people had told the prosecutor’s office at the time that one of the suspects had a motive to kill Hae, and even had threatened to do so,” she said. “And that information was never told to the defense. That alone—not handing over important evidence—could be grounds to overturn a murder conviction.” She goes on to explain that these two suspects had a history of violence against women.

What happened in Serial season one?

Serial season one investigates the murder of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, the man at the time who was accused of her murder. In 1999, high school senior Hae disappeared after school in Baltimore County, Maryland and her body was found in Leakin Park a month later. Then 17-year-old Adnan, Hae’s ex-boyfriend, was charged with premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to life a mere year later. It was argued that Adnan became enraged when Hae broke up with him and started dating another guy, leading to Hae’s strangulation death and the burial of her body in a Baltimore city park. But Adnan has always maintained his innocence and the evidence used at trial was questionable, as Serial illuminated.

Sarah Koenig
Sarah Koenig. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The case against Adnan was largely based on inconsistent testimony from his friend Jay, who claimed he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. Other than that, prosecutors leaned heavily on cellphone location data which has since been found to be unreliable. This was 1999 after all. “Mr. Syed’s conviction was built on a flawed investigation,” Adnan’s attorney Erica Suter said in court ahead of his release. “This was true in 1999 when he was a 17-year-old child. It remains true today.” Outside the court, Suter criticized prosecutors for withholding evidence that could have proven Adnan’s innocence for decades. “If that evidence had been disclosed, perhaps Adnan would not have missed his high school graduation, or his pre-med plans, or 23 years of birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, community events and everyday moments of joy,” she told The Baltimore Sun outside the courtroom. Hae’s brother said he was “not against the investigation”, that he believes in the justice system, but had been blindsided by prosecutors. “Every day when I think it’s over… or it’s ended, it always comes back. It’s killing me,” he said. “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life – a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

Serial wrapped eight years ago but in light of Adnan’s release, a new once-off, 16-minute-long episode dropped. In it, Koenig reflects on what the decision to release Adnan means to the larger failures of the justice system. “There was a lot of talk about fairness. But most of what the State put in that motion to vacate all the actual evidence was either known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999,” she said. “So even on a day when the government publicly recognizes its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness. Because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct. And that’s just this one case.”

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