Did popular 'Serial' podcast get Adnan Syed a retrial?

A Maryland judge agreed to hear new evidence from the defense in the 2000 murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who may have a podcast to thank for reviving his previously closed case. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
Shamim Syed, whose son Adnan was convicted for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend and whose case is being revived in a wildly popular podcast, poses for a photograph in her home in 2014 in Baltimore.

A Maryland judge has granted a request to reopen the trial of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man whose first-degree murder conviction in 2000 became the subject of ‘Serial,’ the most popular podcast in 2014.

Mr. Syed was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee after her body was found in a park. Although Syed has always claimed his innocence, prosecutors convicted the then-17-year-old based on cellphone tower data that linked Syed to the Baltimore park where Ms. Lee's body was found. 

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch granted a post-conviction hearing for Syed on Friday, after a cell phone expert and a potential alibi witness filed new sworn affidavits in the case. 

The alibi witness, Asia McClain, said she was in the library with Syed during the time of the killing but was never contacted to testify by Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez. And a former AT&T engineer who testified in the original trial, Abraham Waranowitz, said prosecutors had not shown him a page of Syed’s cell phone records that contained a disclaimer about the poor reliability of cell phone tower data.

If Judge Welch determines that Syed had inadequate legal representation during his first trial, the convicted killer currently serving a life sentence in prison will be granted a new trial. 

“Reopening the post-conviction proceedings would be in the interests of justice for all parties,” Welch wrote in a statement.

“We think this is a very big step in the direction of getting Adnan a new trial,” C. Justin Brown, Syed’s new defense lawyer, told The New York Times. “It’s exciting news for us, but there’s still a long way for us.”

And although the two parties disagree about Syed’s role in the murder, both sides agree ‘Serial’ played a role in Welch’s ruling. 

In September, Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said the defense’s requests for a new hearing are “meritless” and opening the first proceedings would be “inconsequential theater and not in the interest of justice.”

Ms. McClain said ‘Serial’ renewed her desire to participate in the case. “After I learned about the podcast, I learned more about [Sarah] Koenig’s reporting, and more about the Syed case,” she said in her January affidavit. “…I came to understand my importance in the case. I realized I needed to step forward and make my story known to the court system.”

Jay Wilds, the prosecution’s main witness who claimed he helped Syed bury Lee’s body, refused an interview by Koenig for the podcast. But after the podcast aired, Wilds felt he was unfairly depicted by Koenig and granted an extensive interview with The Intercept to tell his side of the story. But during Wilds’ efforts to clear his name from ‘Serial’, he changed enough details of his original testimony to call his credibility into question.

The podcast ‘Serial’ was downloaded about 100 million times, and the journalist behind the project, Sarah Koenig, won a Peabody award for “illuminating disturbing flaws” in the criminal justice system. A second series of ‘Serial’ is set to air later this year, where Koenig will examine the 2009 case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who was accused of desertion in Afghanistan after he was captured by the Taliban.

And as for Syed’s case, Koenig said she is surprised by the judge’s decision. She told The New York Times, “I’m dying to know what’s going to happen next.”

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