On Monday, the series roared back to prominence when a Baltimore judge approved a motion by prosecutors to vacate Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of former high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee and announced his release from prison after 23 years.
The reversal drew nationwide attention and reignited interest in the 2014 podcast, which chronicled Syed’s case over 12 episodes. The series documented a number of issues with his conviction by scrutinizing the timeline of events, leads, and evidence. On Tuesday, host Sarah Koenig launched a new episode to discuss Syed’s release.
“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent. They stopped short of exonerating him,” Koenig said during the episode. “Instead, they’re saying that back in 1999, we didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough. We relied on evidence we shouldn’t and we broke the rules when we prosecuted. This wasn’t an honest conviction.”
Koenig remains the executive producer of Serial Productions.
Here’s what we learned from the latest episode.
The Juvenile Restoration Act takes effect
Almost a year ago, the Juvenile Restoration Act took effect in Maryland, Koenig said. The law stipulates that “if you served at least 20 years in prison for a crime you committed when you were a juvenile, you can ask the court to reduce your sentence — maybe even let you out,” she said.
A day after the law took effect on Oct. 2, 2021, Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, delivered his case to the Baltimore city state’s attorney’s office for them to review, she said. The request went to Becky Feldman, chief of the sentencing review unit for the prosecutor’s office.
“One of the factors she has to weigh in deciding whether to support a sentence reduction under this new law is the facts of the crime,” Koenig said.
Becky Feldman is quickly ‘bothered’ by the case
After taking up the case, Feldman determined that “something isn’t right,” Koenig said.
“She’s having a hard time answering what should be a simple question: What’s Adnan Syed’s level of culpability in this crime?” she recalled.
Feldman was new to the prosecutor’s office, having been part of the public defender’s office for years. Her “sense of alarm was cultivated on the defense side,” Koenig said, and although a sentence review isn’t meant to be a reinvestigation of the case, that’s what began to happen.
A judge is asked to order DNA testing in the case
By that March, Feldman’s office was joined by Syed’s lawyer in asking a judge to order “new high-tech DNA testing,” Koenig said. While they waited, Feldman and Suter worked together to consult cell phone and polygraph experts and review land records.
In June, Feldman started copying material from the state’s “massive case file” at the attorney general’s office. After she took the papers back to her office, she discovered “some handwritten notes” about a “potential alternate suspect in the case,” Koenig said.
“She calls up Erica Suter, who tells her, ‘Yeah, we’ve never seen these notes before.’ They’re both shocked,” Koenig said.
DNA results come back in mid-August
The DNA results that Feldman and Suter asked a judge to order eventually came back but offered “nothing really conclusive or useful,” she said. They then took stock of everything they had learned during their investigation.
“The result was a disturbing bouquet of problems, whose cumulative effect gave the state ‘overwhelming cause for concern,’” Koenig said. “Under the circumstances, they couldn’t justify holding Adnan in prison anymore.”
Feldman writes a motion to vacate to the court
“The motion to vacate does not tell us a new story of the crime. It doesn’t lay out an alternative theory of who killed Hae Min Lee,” Koenig said. “Instead, the motion lays out how the system malfunctioned back then.”
The “headline of the state’s motion,” she said, is that prosecutors developed more evidence about the people who may have been involved but who “weren’t properly ruled out as suspects,” she said. The suspects are not named, she added, because the state says that the “investigation is ongoing.”
The biggest problem the motion explains
The “first and worst thing” listed about two possible suspects revolve around handwritten notes that Feldman found in the state’s trial boxes, Koenig said. The notes appear to be written by a prosecutor “memorializing two different phone calls from different people who called the state’s attorney’s office to give information about the same person.”
As best as Koenig could tell, the calls came in several months apart — before Syed went to trial.
“The gist of the information from both calls is that a guy the state had more or less overlooked had a motive to kill Hae Min Lee — that this person was heard saying that he was upset with her and that he would, ‘Make her disappear. He would kill her,’” Koenig said.
On Monday, Feldman said in court that the state had looked into this individual and found the information to be “credible,” Koenig said. But it appeared that evidence was never turned over to the defense — a “major breach” of protocol that could by itself be enough to overturn the conviction, Koenig said.
“That’s known as a Brady violation,” Koenig said.
Motion says state has new information about two suspects
The prosecution’s motion also said the state has new information about the two suspects, Koenig said.
She listed out the new details:
- One of them had a connection to the location where Lee’s car was found after she disappeared.
- One or both have relevant criminal histories. Koenig said these included “mostly crimes committed after Adnan’s trial, one of them for a series of sexual assaults.”
Koenig said while she knows who the suspects are, she’s not naming them because neither has been charged in connection with Lee’s murder. One was investigated at the time, she said, as was the other, though “not with much vigor.”
Motion says the state has also lost faith in old information
Koenig said the state reviewed old information about the case but “lost faith” in it, including the testimony of their star witness, Jay Wilds, and cellphone records.
“They don’t hold up separately. They don’t hold up together,” she said.
Although Syed’s defense team had been saying for years that the cell phone evidence at trial was unreliable, Koenig said, “the state only recently talked to three experts about what the cell records actually show and don’t show.”
“The experts all agreed: we can’t use the incoming call records to back up Jay’s narrative. It doesn’t work like that,” she said.
Feldman also added a final section to the motion noting that one of the two main detectives on the case had been “accused of misconduct” in another investigation. That detective had repeatedly interviewed Wilds, Koenig said.
So what happens now?
Although the Brady violation was enough “for the state to cry uncle,” all told the findings were an “overwhelming cause for concern,” Koenig said.
“Adnan’s case was a mess. Is a mess,” she said.
Baltimore City Police told the prosecutor’s office that they’re going to put someone back on the case and “try to talk to the two suspects that Becky Feldman identified in the motion,” Koenig said.
“I have zero predictions about what could come up,” she said. “But I do know that the chances of the state ever trying to prosecute Adnan again are remote at best.”