The Story of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, The Man Convicted of Her Murder
In 2014, a podcast by This American Life titled Serial began to follow the murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee, whose body was found on February 9, 1999 in Baltimore, MD. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old Adnan Masud Syed, was tried and convicted for her murder and was given a life sentence plus 30 years in prison. But according to Serial host Sarah Koenig, things just didn’t add up.
The podcast became hugely popular and brought nationwide attention to Syed’s case, resulting in a dramatic turn of events. So what really happened to Hae Min Lee and to her convicted killer, Adnan Syed? Read on to find out.
The victim: Hae Min Lee
Hae Min Lee was an 18-year-old girl who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. She was originally from South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12 with her mother and brother. Her friends described her as a funny, smart and beautiful girl who was always kind to everyone.
Lee went to Woodlawn High School under the magnet program and was known as an athlete. She played lacrosse and field hockey at the school and wanted to be an optician. She actually worked at LensCrafters and was planning on traveling to France shortly before she went missing.
The suspect: Adnan Syed
Adnan Masud Syed, who also attended Woodlawn High School, was Lee’s ex-boyfriend and became the main suspect in her murder case. He was younger than she was, at age 17, when he was convicted but was tried as an adult.
At trial, the jury took only two hours to convict Syed. However, many people still believe he is not the one who murdered Hae Min Lee. One of these people was Rabia Chaudry, a family friend who contacted journalist Sarah Koenig, and originally asked her to investigate the case. Her investigation eventually turned into the popular podcast, Serial. But what did Koenig find?
How it all began
On January 13, 1999, Senior student Hae Min Lee disappeared without a trace, causing her family to call 911 and report her missing. She was supposed to pick up her six-year-old niece from school but never showed up.
This was very unlike her and her family couldn’t find her anywhere. The last time she was seen that day was around 3:00 pm when she left school in a gray 1998 Nissan Sentra. She was supposed to go to work later that day, but never showed up.
Her body was found 27 days later
After weeks of searching for the teenager, her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore by a man strolling through the park. Her body was just laying in a shallow grave when she was discovered on February 9th, 1999. It took two days before the body was identified as the missing Hae Min Lee.
Her case was immediately changed from missing persons to homicide. Her cause of death was determined to be of manual strangulation but other than that, that was all they knew. They also found her car nearby but with no clues as to what had happened.
They got a tip on who the murderer was
Even before Lee’s body was found, the Baltimore County Police were given an anonymous tip that her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was the one who murdered her. Then two days later on February 3rd, the police received call records from Syed’s cell phone.
Those records prompted them to interview a couple of Syed’s friends—Jay Wilds and Jennifer Pusateri. After a series of interviews, Pusateri told the police that Wilds confessed to her that he helped Syed bury Lee’s body. Eventually, Wilds confirmed this. He was also the one who lead the police to Lee’s car. But was he telling the truth?
6. Syed was arrested for murder
Wild’s confession is what lead the police to investigate Lee’s ex-boyfriend and on February 28, 1999, at six in the morning, Syed, who was known to be a good kid and and an athlete before Lee’s disappearance, was arrested for her murder. He was officially charged with first-degree murder.
Little did the police know that this wasn’t going to be an easy case. Despite what Jay Wilds said, Syed maintained his stance that he was innocent. People in Baltimore, though, believed what the police had told them. That is until more evidence came out.
Jay Wilds was the sole witness
Usually, when police go out and arrest someone for murder, they make sure they have a lot of good evidence to lock them away. Yet, in the murder case of Hae Min Lee, the Baltimore County Police didn’t have much.
In fact, the entire trial and arrest were based on what one witness had said. They could find no real evidence to back up Jay Wilds’ story that he helped Syed bury Lee and then dispose of her car. Because of that, the trial was very complicated.
People needed closure
Despite the lack of evidence and facts, people wanted closure, especially Lee’s family. That is why the family and everyone else who cared simply took Syed as the murderer.
After he was arrested, the family stated that it gave them “some closure and some peace” knowing what happened to their girl. On March 11th, a memorial service was held for Lee at her high school and it seemed like people were ready to move on.
The first trial was a mistrial
Yet, when the first trial came along, the family didn’t get the closure they were looking for. Cristina Gutierrez was the attorney that defended Syed, hired by his family. Syed’s family wasn’t pleased with Gutierrez’s performance, and they had good reason.
During the trial, Judge Quarles called Gutierrez up to him and accused her of lying to the jury about some evidence. Gutierrez then asked for a mistrial, saying the jury had heard the judge call her a liar. What would have happened had the jury never heard that comment? nobody knows for sure.
Syed was found guilty in the 2nd trial
Eventually, a second trial was held and this one went on to last six weeks. Gutierrez was once again Syed’s attorney but this time, and a different judge, Judge Wanda K. Heard preceded his second trial.
On February 25th, 2000, Adnan Syed was found guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. After his conviction, Syed told his family not to worry and “I have faith in the Lord. I know I didn’t kill her. The Lord knows I didn’t kill her.”
Syed kept up his innocence
Even after he was declared guilty of murdering Hae Min Lee, Syed refused to admit he was. His attorney, Gutierrez seemed to think that her client was guilty because she asked the judge for mercy when deciding his sentence since it was a “crime of passion.” This enraged Syed, who still maintained his innocence.
Syed’s Muslim family, though, believed him and after the Serial podcast came out, so did a lot of other people. Lots of people thought that his life sentence was harsh considering there wasn’t that much evidence and he was only 18. But did the podcast make any difference?
His apparent motive
During the trial, both sides unraveled the relationship between Syed and Lee. Both students at Woodlawn High School, they began dating in 1998 but had to keep their relationship secret because of religious differences.
In December of that year, Lee ended the relationship with Syed, though the two remained close. Soon after, she began dating an older guy named Don, who was still her boyfriend at the time of her death. According to the prosecution, this led to Syed’s anger towards Lee and gave him the motive to want to kill her. As the Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Urick explained, “Solely because of hurt pride, he chose to kill.”
His first appeal
Considering he kept maintaining his innocence, it isn’t surprising that Syed filed for an appeal. After spending three years in prison, he filed his first notion for appeal and was hoping for a new trial.
The appeal didn’t go through and later that year, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected his request. This would be the first of many appeals because no matter how much time had passed, Syed kept maintaining his innocence.
Syed files for post-conviction relief
Syed started the long process of post-conviction relief in 2010 after being in prison for 10 years. The post-conviction relief was directed at the Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Syed appealed on the grounds that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez didn’t do all she could to help him win the case. According to Syed and his family, she never even negotiated a plea deal though he asked her to not once, but twice. The Baltimore City Circuit Court denied him once again but Syed kept on fighting.
The second attempt
In Syed’s second attempt to file an appeal, he applied to Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals and this time, he was more successful. On January 13, 2015, they announced that they agreed to consider his application and asked the state of Maryland to respond.
The state responded by saying that the court should deny Syed’s request for appeal on the grounds that since he keeps claiming he is innocent, then he can’t be mad that his attorney never asked for a plea. Was the court going to accept his appeal?
There was new evidence of an alibi
Besides the claim that Gutierrez wasn’t a good attorney, Syed also claimed that she never looked into a possible alibi for him. In his post-conviction appeal, he mentioned that a classmate of his was actually willing to provide an alibi for Syed.
A woman named Asia McClain had written to Syed saying that she believed he was innocent and didn’t murder Hae Min Lee, becasue she saw him at the library at the time of the murder. McClain never testified in the first two trials but is now willing to in his next. If only McClain had come out sooner.
The post-conviction relief hearing
The Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch declared on November 6, 2015 that Syed’s post-conviction relief proceedings would be reopened and new evidence will be entered. The hearing took place from February 3rd to February 9th the following year.
People from all over the country traveled to Maryland to attend Syed’s hearing, including the host of Serial Sarah Koenig herself. McClain held up her promise and testified at this court session, saying that she talked to Syed at the library at the time of Lee’s murder.
A new trial was declared
The hearing ended up going well for Syed, because he was granted a new trial on June 30th, 2016. It has been a long 16 years and this is the first good news for the 35-year-old Syed.
In October of that year, Syed’s attorney’s asked the judge to release him on bail while he waits for the new trial. Two excruciating months later, the judge denied the request. Syed will have to stay in jail until his new trial, which could take years as appeal processes are slow. However, Syed now has more evidence in his defense.
The cell phone tower evidence
One of the things that made Judge Welsh agree to retrial Syed’s case was his original team never looked into the cell phone tower evidence that was addressed heavily on the Serial podcast. During the original trial, the prosecutor used evidence from AT&T that revealed that Syed’s phone was around the park where Lee’s body was found at the time of the murder.
This was all according to cell phone towers in the area that his phone pinged when he received phone calls that fateful day. Yet, those AT&T records also stated, “Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location.” According to Syed’s team, he never made any outgoing calls that day so this shouldn’t have been used as major evidence.
Rabia Chaudry’s helping hand
Someone who has been fighting for Syed’s freedom is Rabia Chaudry. She is not only a friend of the Syed family but also an immigration attorney. She was the one that actually brought the case to Sarah Koenig of Serial asking her to investigate the murder of Hae Min Lee.
She also published a book in 2016 called Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial that continues his story from where Serial left off. Chaudry also does a podcast that talks about evidence in her friend’s case and other facts.
Lee’s family remains silent
While the focus is mainly on Adnan Syed, his attorneys, and his family, we can’t forget what this case is really about—the murder of an 18-year-old girl. Lee’s family has been grieving all these years and while it was a relief that her “killer” was put away, it probably isn’t so much so now since so many people are claiming he is innocent.
During all these years, though, and with the popularizing of the case, the Lee family has kept their silence. They didn’t want to take part in Serial or any other documentaries. Nor did they want to be interviewed or make any comments to the media. They have been through a lot and it is probably so hard to continue seeing their daughter’s story talked about so much.
Gutierrez was disbarred
A lot of blame for Syed’s guilty verdict was directed at his first attorney Cristina Gutierrez. Later evidence also showed that he wasn’t the only client of hers that had complaints. Between her failure to ask for a plea deal, investigate the cell phone evidence, and find an alibi for Syed, many had claimed Gutierrez proved to be a bad attorney.
A short while after Syed’s original trial, Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001 by consent, meaning she made the decision to lose her law license. Three years later, she died of a heart attack after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Jay Wilds’ story isn’t consistent
Syed has kept up his innocent statement since day one and hasn’t changed his story on what he did the day Hae Min Lee went missing. His alleged friend and the prosecution’s star witness, Jay Wilds, on the other hand, has not kept his story consistent and as was proved on the Serial podcast, there were definitely a lot of loopholes in his testimony.
In fact, he kept changing details of his story on what happened that day in his interviews and even during the second trial. Then, when Wilds was interviewed by The Intercept in 2014 after the Serial podcast ended, he changed his story again giving us more questions than answers.
The Innocence Project DNA testing
The University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic is a non-profit legal organization that helps out wrongly convicted people using DNA testing. After learning about Syed’s story and the many loopholes in his trial, they decided to take up his case and asked to do some DNA testing.
Because Syed’s case mainly focused on Wilds’ testimony, they never actually tested physical evidence to further prove the allegations. That is why the Innocence Project petitioned for DNA testing on the things that were never tested in the first place.
Investigation Discovery, the American television network that focuses on true crimes decided to air a one-hour special about the murder of Hae Min Lee. It was called Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty? and it was shown on January 14, 2016.
The special was a direct result of the podcasts being so popular. On the special, they aired the new evidence that came to light during Sarah Koenig’s investigation. They also used information taken from the two books that were published about the case, one written by Asia McClain and the other written by Rabia Chaudry, claiming Syed’s innocence.
So what happens next?
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