Popular Podcast Fuels New Trial After Man Served 16 Years of a Life Sentence

Kelly Anthony, Esq. | Deputy General Counsel
August 29, 2016

On June 30, 2016, Adnan Syed was given something that he wanted for 16 years—a new trial. Judge Martin Welch, from the Baltimore Circuit Court in Maryland, vacated Syed’s 2000 murder conviction based on cell phone tower evidence that was not introduced in the original trial.

The murder itself sparked national attention via the popular podcast Serial. The first season of the show covers the story of Syed’s conviction following the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. On January 13, 1999, Lee disappeared sometime after being seen at 3 p.m.

Her body was found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park two days later. Syed was arrested on February 28, 1999 and then convicted of first-degree murder on February 25, 2000. The podcast premiered in 2014, and by February 2016, Season 1 of the show had been downloaded over 80 million times.

While it was the podcast that introduced Syed’s case to the public eye, it was Serial blogger and attorney Susan Simpson who is credited with discovering the evidence that prompted the new trial. Simpson, in an unofficial spinoff of Serial called Undisclosed, unearthed a fax sheet from AT&T that detailed the calls incoming and outbound from Syed’s phone the night of the murder. The fax sheet called into question the location tracking of the cell phone tower’s reliability. In the original trial, the prosecution used the cell tower data to pinpoint Syed to the scene of the crime, however, the new evidence from the fax sheet indicated that other phone calls made by Syed on that evening placed him 40 miles away from the murder. This evidence was introduced in a hearing February of 2016. The cellphone technician who testified for the prosecution in 2000 submitted an affidavit that indicating that he would have changed his testimony had he been made aware of the fax sheet during the trial.

At the hearing in February 2016, a new witness was also presented who gave Syed an alibi. Asia McClain, who was identified in the podcast, testified that she saw Syed at a library during the time that prosecutors said Lee was murdered, however, Judge Welch did not seem to be swayed by her testimony. Rather, Judge Welch vacated the conviction based on the cell tower evidence, concluding that Syed’s attorney “rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state’s expert regarding the reliability of cell tower location evidence.”

The Maryland District Attorney is expected to appeal this case, but Syed’s attorney Justin Brown is confident that Syed will eventually go free.

This case is: State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed, Case No. 199103042-46

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