In January 1999, Hae Min Lee, a high school senior at Woodlawn High School in Maryland, was murdered. Her body was found in February in a local park, and the investigation of her death intensified. The police received an anonymous tip that the killer was her former boyfriend Adnan Syed. This tip led to Jay Wilds, an acquaintance of Syed, who said he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body. Based on Wilds’ testimony and cellphone records, a jury convicted Syed of first-degree murder in 2000. Syed is now serving a life sentence.
This story was the subject of the first season of “Serial,” a podcast that is a spinoff of “This American Life,” a popular public radio show. It has been downloaded more than 100 million times across various podcasting platforms and won a Peabody Award in 2014. The attention that “Serial” brought to the case has increased efforts to exonerate Syed. On Nov. 7, Judge Martin Welch granted a new hearing that will allow Syed to present new evidence.
In a potential breakthrough, Abraham Waranowitz, a former AT&T employee who originally testified for the prosecution, filed a motion indicating that prosecutors had not shown him a disclaimer about the reliability of data from the cellphone towers that pinged Syed’s phone on the day of the murder. At trial, this data was key in showing that Syed was at the site of the crime that day. In 1999 the use of cellphone data was a new technique, but subsequent cases have shown that geolocation data from cellphones is usually not accurate enough to pinpoint someone’s location as the prosecution did. Had the cellphone data not been allowed into the court room, observers contend that the prosecution’s case would have been much weaker.
Additionally, a letter from March 1999 written by Syed’s classmate, Asia McClain, provided an alibi for Syed, indicating that McClain had seen Syed during the time of the murder, according to the prosecution’s timeline. McClain filed an affidavit in January saying that Syed’s lawyer had never contacted her, a fact that was brought up in the “Serial” podcast. This represents an interesting omission because it could have easily exonerated Syed. Such an action raises questions about the competence of Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who was disbarred soon after the end of Syed’s case.
Syed’s new lawyer is cautiously optimistic that he will be able to win a new trial for his client, though such a development is still far away. As for “Serial” fans, the podcast will move on and focus its second season on the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the solider who was held captive by the Taliban until a prisoner swap was arranged by U.S. President Barack Obama. The circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban are under intense scrutiny, with some calling Bergdahl a deserter. Tune in then, on “Serial.”