Hae Min Lee was a hardworking high school student, an avid player of lacrosse and field hockey, and heading towards great things. Her brutal murder, first discovered in February 1999, was heartbreaking, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was quickly arrested for the crime based on an anonymous phone call and witness claims. After a mistrial in 2000, Syed was convicted on murder charges and sent to prison for life.
That would have been the end of it, if it wasn’t for Serial. The enormously popular podcast broke down the case in granular detail, illustrating both flaws in the prosecution’s case and potential gaps in Syed’s alibi, riveting listeners in 2014 and leading the public to demand a new trial.
As you have probably read, Syed got it, but it was a long road to get there. Here’s what happened, and what it means.
February 6, 2015: Three weeks after Serial ends, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reverses the appeal decision of a Baltimore court concerning Syed’s case. Syed had appealed on grounds his representation during the 2000 trail, Christina Gutierrez, was ineffective for not seeking a plea deal.
May 19, 2015: The Court of Special Appeals orders the Maryland Superior Court to consider the admissibility of Asia McClain’s testimony. McClain has stated she was speaking to Syed at the exact moment the prosecution claims Syed attacked Lee in a Best Buy parking lot.
August 15, 2015: Justin Brown, Syed’s current attorney, submits a motion that the cell tower data crucial in convicting Syed is also suspect and should also be examined by the courts. The prosecution argued that Syed had received several calls from the same park where Lee’s body was found around the time it was abandoned there, and Brown notes that when the data was provided, the prosecution was warned that outgoing calls offer reliable data, while incoming calls, the basis on which the prosecution built their case, do not.
November 9, 2015: The Superior Court accepts the brief on Asia McClain’s testimony.
November 16, 2015: The Baltimore City Circuit Court reopens Syed’s post-conviction relief hearing, which determines whether or not he will receive a new trial.
February 3 to February 9, 2016: The post-conviction relief hearing opens, lasting five days and seeing testimony from McClain.
June 30, 2016: Christina Gutierrez, Syed’s original counsel, is declared ineffective by the Baltimore City Court for not challenging the state’s cell phone evidence. Syed’s conviction is vacated, making way for a new trial.
What’s Next?: Brown and the state of Maryland will go to trial to once again determine Syed’s innocence. The fundamental problem for both sides is that seventeen years have passed. Evidence has had time to be lost, memories have had time to fade, and opinions have had time to harden. Ultimately this will likely be a trial based more on the case the prosecution built in 2000 than one about Syed’s guilt or innocence, but that may be enough to free him. Much of the case is built on Syed’s cell phone, but all they have is triangulation data, which was notoriously imprecise even nearly a decade later. Syed’s trial date is not yet set.