A Maryland appeals court ruled on Tuesday to reinstate the murder conviction of Adnan Syed after the Baltimore man was released from prison following 23 years in custody for the alleged killing of his former high-school girlfriend. He was the subject of the medium-defining podcast Serial, through which many Americans became familiar with the complicated case involving the 1999 homicide of Hae Min Lee, though many years of appeals and follow-up investigations may have blurred the developments together. To help get the context for this latest turn in the case, below is a timeline of the conviction, exoneration, and reinstatement of Adnan Syed.
The homicide and initial conviction
In January 1999, Korean American 18-year-old Hae Min Lee’s body was found in Leakin Park in west Baltimore, where the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland determined that she had been killed by strangulation. The next month, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged with murder after a friend told investigators that Syed had discussed killing Lee and that he’d helped Syed bury her body.
Syed’s first trial resulted in a mistrial when his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, spoke with the judge in a sidebar within earshot of the jury. But by February 2000, he had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. Syed tried to appeal his conviction in 2003 and appealed for post-conviction relief in 2010, but both efforts failed.
Then came Serial. In 2014, the investigative podcast dove into the state’s case against Syed and its apparent flaws — like questionable evidence from a cell-phone tower and the testimony of a witness who wasn’t called, Asia McClain, who put Syed miles away from the scene of the crime at the time of Lee’s death. With the scrutiny of the podcast and the attention of its millions of listeners, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals approved Syed’s application to file an appeal for a hearing introducing McClain’s alibi testimony in February 2015.
Fighting for a new trial
By February 2016, Syed’s case was subject to a post-conviction relief proceeding, which would determine if a new trial would be necessary to weight the additional testimony from McClain and others. In June of that year, Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Martin P. Welch granted Syed a new trial and vacated his murder conviction on the basis that his initial attorney had “rendered ineffective assistance.” Syed was not granted bail as his case made its way through the appeals-court system: In March 2018, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld his request for a new trial, but prosecutors appealed the decision to the higher Maryland Court of Appeals, which denied the request in March 2019. A 4-3 majority found that the court determined the new evidence “does little more than call into question the time that the state claimed Ms. Lee was killed.” The appeals process seemed over when the Supreme Court rejected Syed’s appeal for a new trial.
Syed is released after 23 years
On September 19, 2022, a judge in Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated Syed’s sentence, finding that prosecutors had not handed over evidence that could have aided the defense in the 2000 trial. Syed was released the same day. Prosecutors were then given 30 days to determine if they would seek a new trial, but the charges were dropped in October.
The murder conviction is reinstated
On March 28, 2023, the Appellate Court of Maryland ruled that the Baltimore City Circuit Court had violated the right of Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, to be notified of the state’s motion to vacate the sentence, thereby reinstating Syed’s sentence. The appeals court ordered a new hearing on the state’s motion to vacate the conviction. “This is not a podcast for me,” Lee said when he addressed the court. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.” It is not yet clear if Syed will be forced to return to prison prior to the next hearing.