Skip to main content

How the 'Serial' podcast led to Adnan Syed's release

A person holding a mobile phone with the Serial podcast logo displayed on the screen
Image: John B Hewitt / - Above: A stock image showing the Serial podcast playing on a mobile phone

After almost 23 years in prison, Adnan Syed was released for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee - a murder he has always denied committing.

It’s a case that has been familiar to people across the world since 2014 after the popular true crime podcast Serial was first released brought attention to the murder and made armchair detectives out of the masses.

Syed was the prime suspect and convicted in 2000, but was it possible he was railroaded by a corrupt and racist system?

It’s been over two decades since Hae Min was murdered and almost a decade since Serial was first released. In that time, Syed has had his conviction vacated and two possible new suspects have emerged. But are we any closer to finding out who murdered Hae Min Lee?

The case

Hae Min Lee was an 18-year-old Korean-American high school student. She was pretty, popular and athletic. She was funny, charming and known to be liked by all; a good friend.

Then, on 13th January 1999, she disappeared. Her family was alerted to her absence when the usually responsible teen failed to pick up her younger cousin from school.

She was missing for almost a month, until, on 9th February, her body was found in Leakin Park. She had been strangled, her body partially buried. Due to an anonymous phone call, police focused on her ex-boyfriend as the prime suspect, 17-year-old Adnan Syed.

Backing up the police’s suspicions was their star witness, Syed’s friend and alleged accomplice, Jay Wilds. Wilds claimed that Syed had told him about his plans to murder Hae Min and that he had then helped Syed bury her body.

Syed was arrested and the case went to trial. The prosecution’s argument for motive was that he was a jealous, spurned lover who had murdered his girlfriend because she had dumped him and started dating someone else. Making much of his status as a Muslim man from a Pakistani background, they argued that the murder was an honour killing.

Mobile phone records also helped place Syed at the scene of the crime: incoming calls to his phone pinged towers near the burial site on the evening Hae Min had disappeared.

A year after her death, Syed was convicted of the murder.


In 2013, Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and friend of the Syed family, contacted journalist Sarah Koenig, asking her to look into the case. Serial came out the following year, its twelve episodes investigating the crime and asking whether Syed had actually committed the murder.

Granted, there were plenty of seeming inconsistencies: Wilds’ story kept changing; the cell phone evidence was unreliable; DNA taken from Hae Min’s body and car didn’t match Syed’s. Plus his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, was later disbarred, following numerous client complaints she hadn’t done the work they had paid her to do. When it came to Syed’s case, she was accused of failing to contact alibi witnesses, including another student, Asia McClain, who claimed to have been with Syed in the library at the time of the murder.

But on the other hand, there was the question of why Wilds would implicate himself in a murder investigation; there were other parts of Syed’s behaviour that seemed questionable; and McClain’s story aside, Syed had no clear alibi. Plus, ‘the Nisha call’.

Koenig never came to a direct conclusion on Syed’s innocence or guilt in Serial but that didn’t stop her listeners from making their own minds up.

The aftermath

Did the podcast help the case? It garnered millions of downloads, bringing much attention to it. The show also revealed new details. Koenig spoke to people involved that the police hadn’t, including Asia McClain.

Syed’s lawyers contacted McClain after her episode aired. Her involvement ultimately led to a court granting a post-conviction hearing. In 2016, Syed was granted a new trial.

Then in 2019, the decision was reversed. Despite the attention Serial had brought, Syed seemed to be staying in prison.

Syed’s release

In 2021, there came a change in legislation: courts could now reconsider the sentences of people convicted as juveniles who had served at least 20 years.

The new law prompted an investigation into Syed’s case. It revealed that prosecutors had known of two other possible suspects at the time that they hadn’t revealed this to the defence. Then there were doubts over the validity of the mobile phone data.

In September 2022, state prosecutors requested that the state release Syed, claiming they no longer had confidence in his conviction. Syed was released, giving prosecutors thirty days to either drop the charges or decide to proceed with a new trial.

Hae Min’s family is appealing the decision.

What now?

Neither of the alternate suspects have been named yet, but here’s what we do know: both were known to police in 1999 and neither was properly ruled out (although police did eliminate one based on a faulty polygraph).

Both have criminal records: one was convicted of serial sexual assault and rape; the other of attacking a woman in her car. More damningly, one had explicitly threatened to kill Hae Min, claiming he was going to make her ‘disappear’.

Other suspects did come up in Serial, including Ronald Lee Moore, who was connected to two murders at the time (both involving strangulation) and had been released from prison days before she was murdered. Moore died by suicide in 2008 in prison.

What about the DNA? Though the samples taken at the time ruled out both Syed and Moore, there was touch DNA on Hae Min’s clothing, which wasn’t able to be tested at the time. Now, it can be. Could it have the answers?

In March 2022, both the state prosecutors and the defence requested it be tested. Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has already said that Syed’s future will be determined by the results.

Until then, the question of who murdered Hae Min Lee still hasn’t been answered.

Check out our true crime podcast hub for podcast features and interviews, plus full episodes of the Murdertown podcast.