The Media Today

Adnan Syed, Serial, and justice

September 20, 2022
Adnan Syed, center, leaves the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. A judge has ordered the release of Syed after overturning his conviction for a 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial.” (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

In 2000, a court in Maryland sentenced a teenager named Adnan Syed to life in prison. He had been convicted of the murder, a year earlier, of Hae Min Lee, his former high school girlfriend, who was strangled to death and buried in a Baltimore park. Syed said that he had nothing to do with the murder, but prosecutors claimed he had grown jealous after Lee started dating someone else, and an acquaintance of Syed’s testified that he helped bury the body—a claim, prosecutors said, that was supported by cellphone location data. As the years passed, Syed maintained his innocence; in the mid-2010s, he was granted a new hearing, then a new trial, before, in 2018, an appeals court vacated his conviction. Syed remained behind bars, though—and, a year later, Maryland’s highest court ruled that he wouldn’t get a new trial after all. The US Supreme Court then declined to take up Syed’s case, without citing a reason.

This was not the end of the matter, though. Last year, Syed’s lawyers asked prosecutors to modify his sentence, citing a recent Maryland law making certain long-term felons convicted as juveniles eligible for reconsideration. That request wasn’t supposed to trigger a reevaluation of the evidence in Syed’s case, but that’s what ended up happening inside the prosecutors’ office; meanwhile, Syed’s lawyers asked for new DNA testing to be performed, citing developments in technology since his conviction, and prosecutors agreed. While the DNA analysis has not yet thrown up any conclusive findings, the prosecutors’ broader review did unearth new evidence in the case, not least details concerning two alternative suspects, that was not made available to Syed’s lawyers at the time, in apparent violation of the law. The review also cast fresh doubt on the testimony of Syed’s acquaintance and the reliability of the cellphone data. Last week, prosecutors asked a judge to vacate Syed’s conviction for a second time, acknowledging that they “no longer had confidence” in its “integrity.” Yesterday, the judge concurred—and this time, Syed was allowed to walk out of prison. There were gasps inside the courtroom. Outside, there were cheers.

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Syed’s case, for all its twists and turns, would not have been a big national news story yesterday if it hadn’t intersected, a few years ago, with a moment of media history: the birth of the investigative podcast Serial and, with it, the enduring craze of real-life-mystery narrative audio (even if, as CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald wrote at the time, Serial didn’t bill itself in such terms). Serial launched in 2014 as a spin-off of the high-end public-radio mainstay This American Life, as that show explored the possibilities of telling a single compelling story episodically (hence: Serial), rather than many compelling stories over the course of a series. “Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, and you just have to hear what happens next, but with a story that’s true,” This American Life’s Ira Glass wrote at the time. “Like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.” Sarah Koenig, a onetime criminal-justice reporter at the Baltimore Sun, had already been investigating Syed’s case for This American Life, where she now worked, when she decided to build the story out into its own series. The form—podcast documentary—was relatively novel, but the basic concept wasn’t. “Trying to do it as a serial—this is as old as Dickens,” Koenig said.

Koenig had been turned on to Syed’s story by Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and old friend of Syed’s who has been vocal in asserting his innocence. Rather than wrapping up her investigation, then packaging it, Koenig continued to report as Serial started to roll out, meaning that, even as her findings became public, she didn’t know precisely where they would lead. In the end, the show did not take a conclusive position on Syed’s guilt or produce a smoking gun. But it did raise serious questions about due process. Some of these concerned the reliability of the cellphone data and the fact that key evidence was never tested for Syed’s DNA. Koenig also tracked down and interviewed a possible alibi who claimed to have been with Syed at the time of Lee’s killing.

By the time the series wrapped up, it was not only a huge hit—it was a cultural phenomenon. Millions of people downloaded it, and many got hooked, including other journalists, who publicly dissected every narrative turn. Slate made a podcast about the podcast; BuzzFeed called it “The Year’s Best New Crime Drama (And It’s Not on TV).” It was praised for shining a light on the broader inequities of the criminal-justice system and for its radical novelty of journalistic form; writing in CJR, Joyce Barnathan hailed it as groundbreaking in its real-time transparency of craft. The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia launched its own probe of Syed’s case. (Syed is now represented by a lawyer from an Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore.) So did legions of amateur sleuths, who traded findings, tips, and speculation in online forums, not least Reddit. Subcommunities spawned subcommunities. (“There has always been a conflict on this subreddit between those of us who wanted to pursue the case quasi-independently and those who didn’t want to ‘spoil’ Koenig’s narrative,” one user, Thousandshipz, told The Guardian at the time.) Syed’s family listened, too. “Some days I’ll be like, ‘This is a really great episode,’” Yusef, Adnan’s brother, said, “and some days I’ll feel down and depressed.”

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As is usually the case with cultural touchstones that generate outsize attention, not everyone liked the series. Some listeners felt that its denouement fizzled into dissatisfying irresolution; others felt that the show painted an overly generous portrait of Syed and even that it cherry-picked details. (Koenig has always stressed that she is a reporter who seeks facts, not easy answers or a cinematic ending.) It was criticized for not shining enough of a light on the broader inequities of the criminal-justice system and for its radical break with journalistic form. Writing for the (now sadly defunct) Awl, Jay Caspian Kang took issue with Koenig’s rendering of the distinct immigrant communities from which Syed (who is Pakistani American) and Lee (who was Korean American) hailed, adding, “I can think of no better definition of white privilege in journalism than that.” And the show’s obsessive fanbase was criticized, too, or at least urged to remember the very human consequences of Lee’s murder. “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE,” a user claiming to be Hae’s brother wrote in a Reddit post at the time. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.”

The mass appeal of Serial endured regardless, outlasting the Syed story. The show produced a second season, on the strange story of the abducted US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, then a third, charting a “year inside a typical American courthouse,” in Cleveland. In 2017, Serial, itself initially a spin-off, launched a spin-off of its own, S-Town. In 2020, Serial Productions, the company behind both shows, was acquired by the New York Times in a deal aimed at bolstering the Times’ growing audio footprint and helping Serial Productions to produce more. The partnership has since spawned shows about white parents and public schools, a real-life election-fraud case in North Carolina, and institutionalized Islamophobia in the UK. Then there were all the serialized true-crime series, in audio and other media, that had nothing to do with Serial but borrowed from its approach to varying extents. In 2019, Glass’s hopes for Serial came full-circle, in a sense, as HBO picked up Syed’s story in a documentary that, while also ending without a smoking gun, broke the news that Syed’s DNA was not found on Lee’s body or car.

Prosecutors, of course, would later grant Syed’s lawyers official new DNA testing, though by that point, the reevaluation of his case triggered by his sentencing request was underway and officials cited the latter as the impetus for agreeing to the DNA step. Indeed, from the outside at least, it’s hard to satisfyingly pinpoint the impact that Serial and, later, HBO’s show had on the events that led to Syed walking out of prison yesterday: they raised and then kept huge public attention on his case in a way that can’t easily be separated from the progress of the case itself, and yet the vacating of his sentence took years, and ultimately flowed from a new law and an official procedure. In a follow-up episode of Serial released this morning, Koenig, who was at the courthouse yesterday, described the motion to vacate as having “burst like a firework” out of the prosecutors’ office and said that she had herself been working to understand what had happened, eventually reporting that a new prosecutor, who formerly worked as a public defender, read Syed’s file after fielding his sentence-review request and grew concerned. Ultimately, “all the actual evidence” underpinning prosecutors’ motion to vacate “was known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999,” Koenig concluded. “It’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness, because we’ve built a system that takes more than twenty years to self-correct.”

Syed’s story is still not resolved, even now. He has not been exonerated and will be detained at home for at least the next thirty days, during which time prosecutors will have to decide whether to drop the charges or start a new trial. Koenig describes the odds that Syed will be prosecuted again as “remote at best.” Even then, though, the key question in the case—Who killed Hae Min Lee?—will remain unanswered, at least in the short term. Yesterday, Lee’s brother Young Lee addressed the court via Zoom. He said that he does not oppose a new investigation in the case if justice demands it. But he also expressed anguish at all the twists and turns along the way. “Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back,” Young Lee said. “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life—a never-ending nightmare for twenty-plus years.”

Below, more on Syed, Serial, and true crime:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.