We talk with Sarah Koenig, host of the “Serial” podcast.
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Millions of Americans know about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee because of the podcast “Serial.” Over 12 episodes in 2014, “Serial” documented the killing of Lee, a high school student near Baltimore, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
On the podcast, a team of journalists led by Sarah Koenig, the host of “Serial,” documented major problems with the case against Syed: The prosecution’s timeline was implausible; Syed’s defense lawyer failed to pursue important leads; and the cellphone records supposedly tracking Syed’s location were questionable. The resulting attention led courts to take another look at the case, but not to free Syed.
Yesterday, however, a judge freed him after he had spent 23 years behind bars. The judge, Melissa Phinn, overturned his conviction after Baltimore prosecutors had said last week that they no longer had confidence in it. “At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed,” Phinn declared. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether they will seek a new trial or drop the charges.
For today’s newsletter, I spoke with Sarah Koenig, who was in the courtroom yesterday. And I encourage you to listen to a special episode of “Serial,” released this morning, about the huge turn in the case. (Sarah remains the executive producer of Serial Productions, which The New York Times Company bought in 2020.)
David: Sarah, you’ve been following this case for almost a decade now, and Adnan Syed has been in jail for more than two decades. What was it like to hear last week that the prosecutors wanted him released?
Sarah: I was shocked. I did not see this coming at all. One of the first things I did was call Adnan’s brother and then his mother — they told me they didn’t know either. The prosecutors who filed the motion to release him kept it pretty tight, it seems.
But the shocking part was that this was coming from the state’s side. I felt almost disoriented for about a day. Like the city prosecutor’s office suddenly pulled off a rubber mask and underneath was a scowling defense attorney.
David: And what was the scene in the court like yesterday?
Sarah: Inside the courtroom, it was packed but very orderly and at times somber and emotional. Outside, though, when Adnan walked out onto the sidewalk: mayhem.
David: Did you notice similarities between the argument that the prosecutor is making now and the arguments that Syed’s lawyers have made in the past?
Sarah: A lot of what the state is saying in this motion probably feels like déjà vu for the defense side. Many of the arguments are the same — unreliable witness statements, unreliable cellphone evidence. A timeline of the crime that doesn’t hold up. But there are a couple of new things, too.
The main is the revelation that the state didn’t hand over information about a possible alternate suspect in the crime. That was a bit of a bombshell.
David: Who is this alternate suspect?
Sarah: There are two of them actually. The state isn’t naming these people right now, but detectives definitely knew who they were at the time. The state is saying these suspects (either one or both) have criminal histories that are relevant to the crime. And that one of them has a family connection to the location where Hae Min Lee’s car was found.
But the most damning thing is that a couple of people had told the prosecutor’s office at the time that one of the suspects had a motive to kill Hae, and even had threatened to do so. And that information was never told to the defense. That alone — not handing over important evidence — could be grounds to overturn a murder conviction.
David: When I finished listening to the first season of “Serial” years ago, I had two thoughts. One, if I’d been a juror, I would have voted to acquit, because you certainly raised reasonable doubts. Two, I thought there was a good chance Syed had committed the crime. Am I right to think that you and your colleagues were sufficiently torn that you expected different listeners to come away with different conclusions?
Sarah: We knew people would come to different conclusions, of course. Barring some smoking-gun evidence, which we didn’t find (and it seems like no one else has either), there was no way for us to say definitively what happened. But what we were pointing out in our story was that the timeline of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems. Which meant the people who convicted Adnan of murder, they didn’t know what happened either.
And so this kid goes to prison for life at 18, based on a story that wasn’t accurate. That’s what we wanted people to think about: Even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?
David: The latest events in this case are reminiscent of the fallout from “In the Dark,” a podcast whose reporting helped free Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who’d been jailed for more than 20 years, for murders he evidently did not commit. Wrongful conviction seems to be a major problem in the U.S. What parts of the Syed case do you think are systemic?
Sarah: Where to begin! Questionable interrogation tactics and tunnel vision by police; an overtaxed system that fails to properly interrogate evidence; prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense; our country’s tolerance for insanely long prison sentences; juveniles treated as adults when science tells us they aren’t; racism; how grindingly difficult it is to get the system to take another look at your case once you’ve been convicted; prosecutors and cops who don’t police themselves and then double down when they’re accused of doing something wrong. It’s pretty much — you name it, this case has it.
And while I’m up here: There is nothing unusual about the presence of these systemic problems in Adnan’s case. Nothing.
For more: Here’s a timeline of Syed’s legal journey.
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The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were billowing, bowling, blowing and wobbling. Here is today’s puzzle.
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Lauren Jackson, an audience editor in Audio, is joining The Morning as a writer in London. Welcome to the team, Lauren.
Here’s today’s front page.
“The Daily” is about Adnan Syed. “The Ezra Klein Show” is about fighting climate change.
Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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