He was convicted 16 years ago, sentenced to life for a murder that made few headlines at the time, but his unusual hearing in a Baltimore court over the last three days has held millions of Americans in suspense ahead of the court’s decision. This is not just any murder case, of course: this is Serial.
The fate of Adnan Syed, 35, serving life for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, could hinge on new evidence just put before a judge but first aired on a wildly popular podcast that re-examined his case.
Its weekly episodes exposed enough shortcomings in the prosecution’s case against Syed in 2000, when he was a Maryland high school student, that he has been granted a post-conviction hearing, an unusual type of appeal.
Testimony began last Wednesday at Baltimore City circuit court, and will likely conclude on Monday. A ruling is not expected until at least a few days later.
A packed courtroom was riveted on the first day of testimony, when Syed’s former classmate Asia Chapman, who may provide a crucial alibi, appeared in court as a witness for the first time in the case.
Fans of Serial are more familiar with Chapman’s maiden name, Asia McClain. She spoke on the podcast about having bumped into Syed in the public library, and said she spent time with him there around the time he was supposed to have committed the murder.
Syed was convicted of strangling Lee, 18, on the afternoon of 13 January 1999, allegedly motivated by rage that she had started seeing someone else. Prosecutors said he stuffed her body into the boot of a car and buried her in an isolated part of a dense, sprawling park.
His friend Jay Wilds, a key witness for the prosecution during the trial, testified that he helped Syed dispose of the body.
But Chapman told the court last Wednesday that Syed appeared “completely normal” that afternoon in the library. She said they chatted for a while before her boyfriend and another friend came to meet her. During cross-examination on Thursday, she stuck to her account, and said that hearing the podcast “placed a great weight on my heart”.
Chapman wrote to Syed after his arrest to point out that her evidence could be important, but she was never called to testify in his trial. Syed’s attorney has also raised the contention that he received inadequate defence counsel and therefore deserves a new hearing.
During his 2000 trial, Syed was represented by Cristina Gutierrez, an attorney known around Baltimore for her passion but in poor health and mired in financial difficulties while working on Syed’s case.
Her plodding, drawling courtroom style and her attention to seemingly irrelevant details have proven two of the intriguing oddities of the case, not least because Gutierrez did not have a chance to explain herself. She was disbarred in 2001 and died of a heart attack in 2004, after a struggle with multiple sclerosis.
When Syed’s new defence lawyer Justin Brown asked Chapman why she was willing to testify now, she said: “I felt it was the right thing to do. For justice to be served, all the information needs to be on the table.”
Apart from being overlooked by Gutierrez, Chapman also alleges that the original prosecutor, Kevin Urick, dissuaded her from getting involved or even contacting Syed’s lawyer.
Arguing for the state this week was Maryland’s deputy attorney general, Thiruvendran Vignarajah, who said the original jury convicted Syed on “overwhelming evidence”.
“Mr Syed was convicted because he did it,” he said.
The courtroom has been packed with supporters of Syed. Lee’s friends have also attended the hearing, but her immediate family has stayed away. They declined to cooperate with the reporting work of Serial’s team or its creator, former Baltimore Sun journalist Sarah Koenig, nor have they commented on the enormous interest in the case expressed in articles, spin-off podcasts, social media and websites.
But after the new hearing began Wednesday, Lee’s family released a statement.
Vignarajah stood on the courthouse steps and read: “Our family has lived without a heart for over 17 years and we continue to grieve every day in private.”
The family called the new hearing the equivalent of being forced to “relive a nightmare”, and reminded people that Hae “is the true victim”.
“We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000 and we look forward to bringing this chapter to an end so we can celebrate the memory of Hae instead of celebrating the man who killed her,” the statement concluded.
Though Serial’s team examined Syed’s case with meticulous care – old and new witness statements, literal steps retraced, timelines re-enacted and evidence questioned – they did not ultimately declare anything about Syed’s innocence or guilt. But the reporters exposed enough shortcomings in the investigation and trial process that the podcast held millions rapt as amateur sleuths.
In the run up to the hearing, fans of the podcast posted expressed everything from anxiety to outrage, writing on social media “Free Adnan” or “Justice for Hae”.
And although Koenig withheld explicit judgment, she was emphatic about one point in the podcast: “As for physical evidence [to convict Syed], there is none.” She has been in court this week.
As a teenager, Syed saw his first appearance before a court declared a mistrial, after the jury overheard an incriminating exchange between the judge and Gutierrez. He did not testify before being convicted in 2000, and it is not yet known whether he will testify at the post-conviction hearing.
Pictures of him in his schooldays show a young man with a scrubby moustache and tousled hair, dressed in American football gear, or standing with his mother outside their local mosque – the same mosque to which Barack Obama paid an official visit last Wednesday to speak up for embattled Muslim Americans.
In court this week, Syed was shackled at the wrists, ankles and around the waist of his blue prison jumpsuit. He sported a long beard and white religious cap.
The new material submitted at the hearing includes a notice from mobile phone company ATT, ignored during the original trials, stating that signals between Syed’s phone and the nearest tower are unreliable for locating a cellphone. The document casts doubt on the prosecution’s argument that Syed was at the site of Lee’s burial.