UPDATE: Adnan Syed could be released from prison today. Get live updates from today’s hearing.
Melissa Binkley first learned of Hae Min Lee’s killing from local news media, shortly after the 18-year-old’s body was found in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in 1999. The Lancaster County resident was struck by the tragic details — the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed for her murder, a grieving high school — but didn’t delve into the case herself until years later, when she first saw Sarah Koenig discussing her podcast “Serial” on television.
“I thought, ‘Podcast? What’s a podcast?’ ” she remembered. “And then it just exploded.”
The 2014 blockbuster of a podcast, when the medium was still novel, made Lee, Syed and Koenig herself household names. The 12-episode season was downloaded more than 100 million times in its first year, according to The New York Times, which purchased Serial Productions in 2020. It tapped into the cultural zeitgeist to a degree unprecedented for a podcast, spawning SNL parodies and a true-crime phenomenon that continues to this day.
Koenig, a producer at “This American Life,” a popular long-form public radio program, developed “Serial” as a spinoff show. She investigated Lee’s death and poked holes into the prosecution of Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, through episodic storytelling that at the time was more akin to prestige television than podcasts.
Originally, Binkley assumed that prosecutors had put away the person responsible for Lee’s murder. But “Serial” pointed out cracks in the prosecution’s foundation, she said.
Binkley, a 51-year-old nurse who now lives near Nashville, moderates a Facebook group called Justice for Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee, with more than 17,000 members, most of whom joined the group after listening to Koenig’s podcast. Eight years later, they continue to follow updates and search for new evidence in the case.
”She got the ball rolling,” Binkley said, noting other podcasts including “Undisclosed” and “Truth & Justice” with Bob Ruff subsequently investigated Lee’s murder.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch in 2016 awarded Syed a new trial, finding that his attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel. But the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, overturned that determination in 2019 in a 4-3 opinion and reinstated his conviction.
Now the case is back in the spotlight, and its avid followers are paying rapt attention to the possibility that Syed could soon be set free. Prosecutors are asking a judge to release Syed from prison on his own recognizance based on new information found in the case.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion last week to vacate Syed’s conviction, stating in part that an almost one-year investigation with his attorney, Erica Suter, has uncovered information about the “possible involvement of two alternative suspects.”
Suter is an assistant public defender who serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, wrote that the prosecutors are not asserting at this time that Syed is innocent. But she said the state has lost confidence in the integrity of his conviction and believes he should at a minimum receive a new trial. His release would continue while law enforcement continues to investigate.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn has scheduled a hearing at 2 p.m. on Monday on the motion, which would give prosecutors 30 days to take further action or drop the charges.
Koenig said it is just stunning to see a case more than 20 years old “turn around this quickly.”
“A guy was sent to prison for the rest of his life based on a really, really flawed process,” she said. “I guess I’ll say it’s good to see the state acknowledge that part of it.”
Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and advocate who’s a friend of the Syed family, co-hosts “Undisclosed.” She first introduced the case to Koenig and said both “Serial” and the case continue to resonate with people for many reasons.
Though Chaudry said she believes the podcast got a lot of facts wrong and missed details, it featured a high production quality — Koenig once recreated the prosecution’s timeline by driving the entire route that Jay Wilds, a former classmate who claimed he helped Syed dispose of Lee’s body, testified the two drove on the day of her murder.
There were many developments in the case after the release of “Serial” for listeners to follow, she added. An alibi witness, Asia McClain, testified at a post-conviction relief hearing. Syed won a new trial, only for the state’s highest court to overturn that decision. And the prosecutor handling the appeals, former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, twice ran for Baltimore state’s attorney — and lost.
She noted that she and other people made a concerted effort to keep the story alive. She produced the HBO documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and published a book, “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After ‘Serial.’ "
For a lot of people, she said, it’s an unsolved mystery.
”I think both aspects of the story — finding who murdered Hae Min Lee and getting justice for Adnan — until those two things are resolved, people will continue to be fascinated with it,” Chaudry said.
Binkley, the Facebook moderator, said the thousands of people who still follow the case do so because they saw “rights made into wrongs.” She believes that police and prosecutors manipulated the narrative to frame Syed.
The Tennessee transplant regularly travels back to the Baltimore region to see family, who live near the now-closed Best Buy on Security Boulevard, the place where Wilds testified that Syed strangled Lee to death.
“I drive right by all the key places, and I think ‘Hae should be here,’ ” she said. “Lots of people suffered through this. It wasn’t just Adnan; it wasn’t just Hae. It was a whole group of kids that were affected by this, and they were manipulated so many times as well by the police.”
Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said he thinks that it’s inevitable that whenever a case receives that kind of attention there will be a level of energy placed on it that might not have existed the first time.
Thompson described “Serial” as the show that “brought podcasts into their adulthood.” The series, he said, exposed the case to an international audience. The podcast created a sense of energy and emotion surrounding it, he said.
With true crime, Thompson said, people participate in their own speculation and sleuthing. Sometimes, he said, coverage empowers people to come out and talk about their own experiences. He cited the #MeToo movement.
He said there are other cases in which a big story in a popular medium became the catalyst for re-energizing the legal process.
Thompson mentioned the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” about the disgraced R&B singer. Documentaries about the conservatorship over Britney Spears and the #FreeBritney movement had the same effect, he said. The Netflix series “Tiger King” resulted in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reopening the investigation into the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s second husband, Don Lewis.
”If you’re someone who’s been wrongfully convicted of a crime, and you’re innocent, I suppose there’s a couple of things you need. First of all, you need a good lawyer,” Thompson said. “But if you’ve been convicted, I guess one of the most powerful appeals is a good podcast.”