This American Life‘s popular Serial podcast bills itself as “one story, told week-by-week.” For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a reporter investigating the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. The host, Sarah Koenig, is still reporting, and she insists that she’s not much further ahead than her listeners. The feeling of being on the cutting edge of an ongoing investigation is exhilarating to fans, and one favorite pastime is debating the extent to which its storytelling is truly open-ended. Despite the show’s conceit, does Koenig already know how the story is going to end?
New developments in Syed’s legal case suggest that the outcome is wide open. The UVA Innocence Project is poised to ask a court to test an old physical evidence recovery kit (PERK) that was used on Lee’s body to test for possible sexual assault in 1999 but was never tested for DNA. Serial producer Dana Chivvis confirmed that reporting is ongoing for the podcast, which averages a million downloads per weekly episode. But the reporting is not strictly chronological. It’s not always clear to the listener whether a piece audio was recorded in the previous week, or months ago.
The show has already mentioned the kit’s existence, but the legal process to test it for DNA is unfolding right now.
“We could learn something, and the whole story could take a sharp left turn, and there’s a different ending than the one we are envisioning,” Chivvis said in an interview with CJR.
According to UVA Innocence Project director Deirdre Enright, her group and a pro bono lawyer in Maryland are about to file a motion to have the kit tested for DNA “as soon as possible.”
Koenig’s unpublished reporting inspired UVAIP to launch its own independent investigation into the Syed case, Enright said, adding that one of her students came across a case on a police cold-case website in which an Asian woman had been raped and murdered in Baltimore County shortly after Lee’s death.
The police had a suspect in that case, Enright says. They confronted him about the rape and murder of the other woman, and he committed suicide in prison shortly thereafter. After he died, the police ran his DNA and got hits for several other unsolved rapes.
“[The detective] gave us enough things out of the dead guy’s file that we could file a motion to test [Lee’s PERK kit] in Maryland,” Enright said.
Serial listeners reached out to the Innocence Project to suggest a second alternative suspect, and his name is listed on the motion as well, Enright says. She did not name the second suspect in the interview.
“A court has to decide to grant this, but I think we have sufficient grounds,” Enright said. She argues that if Lee’s kit came up positive for the DNA of another man, that would exonerate Syed. Under Maryland law, the court must order the DNA test if it deems that the results could exonerate the convicted person requesting it.
There’s no guarantee that the court will allow the kit to be tested. Even if the court allows a test, there might not be any male DNA in the kit, as the original swab tested negative for sperm cells, and investigators found no other evidence of sexual assault. If there were male DNA and it matched that of the dead rapist or the other suspect, that would exonerate Syed, but if the DNA matched his, that would make his guilt more likely.