From 'Serial' to 'Up and Vanished', true-crime podcasts that have reignited cold cases

These podcasts were praised with shedding new light on decades-old cases

Adnan Syed, whose case was chronicled in the hit podcast 'Serial'. His conviction was overturned on Monday. Reuters
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The 2014 podcast Serial brought international attention to the murder of Hae Min Lee, scrutinising the evidence — or lack thereof — that led to the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

Lee was aged 18 when she disappeared in January 1999 after leaving her school in Baltimore in the US. Her body was discovered weeks later in a park. Forensic reports showed she had been strangled.

Syed, who was 17 at the time, was arrested and charged with the murder. A year later, he was sentenced to life in prison, convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment.

The case went out of the public eye for years, until it was featured in season one of Serial, a podcast hosted by US journalist Sarah Koenig. In 12 episodes, the podcast pores over the case, pointing out several inconsistencies, including that forensic reports showed no signs of Syed’s DNA on Lee’s body. The series raised questions about whether Syed, a young Muslim man, was convicted partly owing to racial prejudice.

The podcast was instrumental in bringing Syed’s wrongful conviction back to the courtroom, and on Monday, his conviction was overturned by a judge owing to the state's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. The state has been given 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or dismiss the case.

Serial, however, is not the only true-crime podcast to have reignited a cold case.

'The Teacher’s Pet'

On August 30, Australian former rugby player and teacher Christopher Dawson was found guilty of murdering his wife, Lynette — 40 years after she mysteriously disappeared.

The pair had met in high school in 1965. They married in 1970 and had two children. Dawson pursued a professional rugby career between 1972 and 1976. He then worked as a physical education teacher in a Sydney school, where he was alleged to have engaged in illicit behaviours with his female students. In 1981, he groomed and began a relationship with a 16-year-old student. Lynette went missing on January 9, 1982. Three days later, Dawson invited the student to move into the family home. They were married in 1984 and divorced almost a decade later.

Lynette’s body was never found. However, investigations ruled that she had most likely been murdered by someone she knew. Dawson claimed that Lynette had left after long-running disputes over credit card spending and that she had joined a religious organisation.

For years, Dawson was not charged as prosecutors cited insufficient evidence. Then, in 2018, The Teacher’s Pet reignited public interest in the case. The podcast by journalist Hedley Thomas highlighted inconsistencies in Dawson’s statement and argued that it was unlikely that Lynette, by all accounts a devoted mother, would leave her children and that she would do so with no suitcase or jewellery.

The series was a hit and was downloaded more than 60 million times. Months after its release, Dawson was formally charged. His trail started in May and ended in August with a conviction.

'Up and Vanished'

The podcast Up and Vanished was praised by officials for elucidating the evidence in the murder of Tara Grinstead and bringing the case to public attention again.

Grinstead was a beauty queen and high school teacher in Ocilla, Georgia, who went missing in 2005. The night before her disappearance she attended a beauty pageant she was coaching and then visited a barbecue. She did not show up for work the next day, which roused the suspicion of her fellow teachers. Police went to Grinstead’s home, where they found her mobile phone inside and her car parked outside. There was no sign of a struggle or forced entry.

The case went cold until 2008, when 48 Hours, a show on CBS News, highlighted similarities between Grinstead’s case and the more recent disappearance of another young woman in Florida. It was then revealed that investigators had found DNA on a latex glove discovered in front of Grinstead’s house. However, they were unable to find a match for the DNA.

Then, in 2009, a man began releasing videos online claiming he had killed 16 women, one of whom was Grinstead. The man’s face and voice were digitally concealed but police managed to identify the creator as Andrew Haley, 27. The video was determined to be a hoax.

In 2016, Up and Vanished released its first season, which unpacked the murder case, going over evidence and interviewing several people.

A year later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced it had received a tip that implicated a man named Ryan Alexander Duke in Grinstead's murder. Duke had attended Irwin County High School, where Grinstead worked as a teacher three years before her disappearance. According to court documents, Duke had been robbing Grinstead’s home when she caught him in the act. He then strangled her and with the help of a former classmate, Bo Dukes, attempted to cover up the murder.

Dukes, was found guilty in 2019 of helping to conceal the murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, Duke pled not guilty to the killing and inMay, was found not guilty of murder, aggravated assault and burglary, but was convicted of concealing the death. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Season four of Up and Vanished covers Duke’s trial.

Updated: September 20, 2022, 2:56 PM
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