US court orders new trial for inmate in Serial podcast

Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Lee Hae Min. He has steadfastly declared his innocence.
Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Lee Hae Min. He has steadfastly declared his innocence.PHOTO: REUTERS
Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Lee Hae Min. He has steadfastly declared his innocence.
Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Lee Hae Min (above). He has steadfastly declared his innocence.PHOTO: REUTERS

Man convicted of ex-girlfriend's murder received ineffective counsel: Appeals court

WASHINGTON • An appeals court in the US has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of his former girlfriend's 1999 murder, in a case that received worldwide attention thanks to the hit podcast Serial.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that Adnan Syed, 37, received ineffective counsel, and ruled that his 2000 conviction on charges of murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment be vacated.

Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Lee Hae Min, whose body was found buried in February 1999 in a shallow grave in the woods of Baltimore, Maryland. She had been strangled.

Syed has steadfastly declared his innocence and the case earned new attention when it was taken up by Serial, a weekly podcast that saw a US journalist revisit the case and cast doubt on his guilt.

Thursday's ruling by a three-judge panel does not necessarily mean Syed will get a new trial, as the state can appeal the decision to a higher court.

But Syed's lawyer, Mr Justin Brown, welcomed the move. "We've been fighting for so long that it feels great to get over yet another hurdle," he told reporters.

"(Syed) asked me to convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart for all those people who have supported him this long," he said.

"Serial has also helped build this groundswell of support for us and for Adnan and for the case, and that has really fuelled these efforts and allowed us to keep fighting on the way that we have," he said.

The podcast - a mix of investigative journalism, first-person narrative and dramatic storytelling - focused its first season on Syed's story in 12 nail-biting episodes. They were downloaded more than 175 million times, a world record.

Both Syed and Ms Lee were honour students and children from immigrant families who had concealed their relationship from their conservative parents.

Prosecutors said during the trial that Syed, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was a "scorned lover" who felt humiliated after Ms Lee, whose parents came to the US from South Korea, broke up with him. They also argued that Syed was jealous that she was seeing another man after they broke up.

His supporters said the authorities had failed to contact a potential alibi witness who claimed she saw Syed in a public library at the time of the murder.

The appeals court cited the failure of Syed's lawyer at that time - who has since died - to contact the alibi witness as a reason for ordering a new trial.

Ms Lee was last seen on Jan 13, 1999, as she was leaving school. A few weeks after that, a passer-by found her body partially buried in a shallow grave, according to The Baltimore Sun.

The case received little notice beyond Maryland at the time.

But 13 years later, journalist Sarah Koenig reviewed the police documents and other materials at the urging of Syed's family.

Her podcast focused on alleged inconsistencies in the prosecutors' case and the failure to contact the alibi witness. The series won a prestigious George Foster Peabody journalism award in 2015.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline 'US court orders new trial for inmate in Serial podcast'. Print Edition | Subscribe