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Adnan Syed gets new trial, helped by trend-setting 'Serial'

Adnan Syed, whose 2000 murder conviction was revisited in the popular podcast 'Serial,' is now getting a second trial after the show revealed missteps by his lawyer. Serial is part of a journalistic genre that has relaunched investigation into cold cases.

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    Convicted murderer Adnan Syed leaves the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse in Baltimore in February 2016. A circuit judge announced yesterday that Mr. Syed, whose case was made famous by the 'Serial' podcast, deserves a new trial.
    Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
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A Maryland judge announced yesterday that he will grant a new trial to Adnan Syed, who was convicted 16 years ago in the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. 

Mr. Syed, who has maintained his innocence since his arrest at age 19, was catapulted into the public spotlight in 2014 when he became the subject of the break-out hit podcast "Serial." Over the course of 12 episodes, which were downloaded some 100 million times, executive producer and host Sarah Koenig trailed loose ends and retraced the work of investigators and Syed's lawyer.

Now, as Syed is being called back to trial, "Serial" fans are celebrating the relationship between the show and real life court action. The new trial appears to cement the podcast's place as a founding member of a small but highly popular multimedia genre of journalistic inquiries into cold cases: a new breed of "reality" TV, where reported real life and journalistic methodology are put on display.

These productions take the idea of a "cold case" further than, say, "Unsolved Mysteries," the series which ran from the late 1980s into the last decade, where each episode revisited an unsolved crime or phenomenon with taped interviews and reenactments. Instead, contemporary shows such as "Serial," "The Jinx," and "O.J.: Made in America" delve deeply into one case over a series of episodes.

Part of their popularity has come from the possibility that the journalistic investigations really will unearth something new.

Referring to "Serial" and HBO's show "The Jinx," David Uberti of Columbia Journalism Review writes: "Both of the narrative-driven works take on a cinematic form, enticing their audiences to return with the implicit promise that more damning evidence would be unearthed in subsequent episodes."

How, and whether, that plays out differs from show to show, or case to case.

In the case of the first season of "Serial," which focused on Syed, the podcast set itself up to give answers to a mystery: the intro on the show's website alludes to new information, the possibility of tracking down "someone" who has Syed's alibi. And along the way, Ms. Koenig and the "Serial" team reveal areas where Syed's lawyer, Maria Cristina Gutierrez (who has since passed away), did not take all the steps that she could have to defend her client.

In the final episode, Koenig stopped short of making any definitive claims. However, one of Ms. Gutierrez's failings – that she did not question potentially inaccurate evidence gathered from cellphone towers – has become the reason that Syed will see a new trial, reports The New York Times.

Other shows in the vein of "Serial" have also sparked interest in the possibility of revealing new evidence.

Viewers waited with baited breath – and news agencies sent out push notifications – after a knife uncovered from O.J. Simpson's estate was made public during the airing of FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson," a re-enacted series based on journalist Jeffrey Toobin's 1997 book. The show's producers egged on the idea, tweeting out: "We told you you didn't know the half of it.... Is there really new evidence?"

Long story short – there wasn't.

In "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," however, that conceit did play out to a certain extent. During the HBO show, a handwritten note was uncovered linking Robert Durst, the estranged son and heir of New York's real estate mogul Seymour Durst, to the murder of friend Susan Berman. The day before the final episode aired in 2015, Mr. Durst was arrested in New Orleans for that 2000 murder. (He also appeared to confess to murder during the show, but whether his accidentally recorded confession could be used in court is a matter of debate.)

In the case of the "Serial" investigation into Syed's conviction, the judge rebuffs speculation that he is granting a new trial because of the podcast.

"Regardless of the public interest surrounding this case, the court used its best efforts to address the merits of petitioner's petition for postconviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court; unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion," he wrote, as quoted in The New York Times. 

However, the Times says, Syed's previous request for post conviction hearings, where a judge would decide whether the case warranted a new trial, was denied in 2010. The decision to set aside the conviction and do a new trial came after Syed and lawyer C. Justin Brown were able to present new evidence in post conviction hearings this past February.

When asked if he felt the new trial would have come about without "Serial," Mr. Brown said he didn’t think so.

"I'm feeling pretty confident right now. This was the biggest hurdle. It's really hard to get a new trial," Mr. Brown said.

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