Hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, the popularity of the podcast created renewed interest in the case of the Pakistani-American Syed, who was 18 when he was found guilty of the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a crime he was accused of committing at age 17.
Twenty-three years on, Syed, now 41, is out of prison, and the podcast played a pivotal role. The day after his release, a special episode of the podcast was released, a 13th episode for the first season, titled Adnan Is Out.
Here is what we learnt:
1. Syed is not officially an innocent man
While Syed is out of prison for now, his sentencing has not been entirely overturned.
“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent, they stop short of exonerating him,” Koenig says. “Instead they’re saying, ‘Back in 1999, we didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough.’”
Prosecutors have 30 days from Syed’s release to decide if they intend to pursue a new trial against him.
2. A new Maryland law plays a major role
Last year, a new law came into effect in Maryland, the Juvenile Restoration Act. One element of the law dictates that anyone who has served 20 years in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile can petition for a reduced sentence.
The law came into effect on October 1, and the following day Syed’s current lawyer Erica Suter took his case to the Baltimore City State Attorney’s Office.
The request was taken to Becky Feldman, the chief of the sentencing review unit for the prosecutor’s office, who is a key player in the progress in Syed’s ongoing legal battles, and therefore the episode.
Feldman reviews the case, going over original evidence, but Koenig explains had “a hard time answering what should be a simple question, ‘What’s Adnan Syed’s level of culpability in this crime?’”
3. There are two unnamed new suspects
One of the major revelations in the podcast and Feldman’s findings are two more suspects, who were known to the police in 1999.
They are not named in the podcast, but are known to Koenig, who explains that both suspects were named by witnesses in 1999. One suspect has a motive; they were heard saying they would "make her disappear.”
At the time, one suspect was investigated and underwent a polygraph test, the other was looked into “but not vigorously”.
“Baltimore City Police say they will assign someone back on to the case and that they will try to talk to the two suspects identified by Feldman,” Koenig says.
4. The Brady violation is explained
Back in 1999, the two suspects were never named to the defence. This is a legal misdemeanour known as a Brady violation, which has played a role in the state’s motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.
At trial, this generally “occurs when a prosecutor fails to provide a defendant or criminal defence attorneys with any evidence that is favourable or helpful to a defendant’s case,” according to Shouse Law Group.
5. The mobile phone evidence has been deemed unreliable
In the episode, it is revealed that Feldman has deemed the mobile phone evidence as unreliable. This evidence, along with the evidence from Syed’s friend Jay Wilds, was a large part of the case against Syed.
This was a major part of the original series, digging into the ways that the mobile phone and mast evidence could have proven Syed’s whereabouts or guilt, but Feldman spoke to three experts on the matter.
The three experts all “agreed, you can’t use the incoming call records to back-up Jay’s narrative, it doesn’t work like that.”
6. The detectives are called into question
Another key revelation is that one of two main detectives on the case, Bill Ritz, was accused of misconduct in another murder case that went to trial the same year Syed’s did.
Ritz was accused of manipulating and fabricating evidence, not disclosing exculpatory evidence and not following up on evidence that pointed to a different suspect. In 2016, the person convicted in that case was exonerated.
7. The podcast ends on a hopeful but pragmatic note
“Adnan’s case was a mess, is a mess,” Koenig says frankly. She speaks about the work of his childhood friend Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who brought Syed’s case to Koenig’s attention for the original series.
She ends the podcast with a fairly damning assessment of parts of the US legal system.
“Adnan’s case contains just about every chronic problem our system can cough up. Police using questionable interview methods, prosecutors keeping crucial evidence from the defence, slightly junky science, extreme prison sentences, juveniles treated as adults, how grindingly difficult it is to get your case back in court once you’ve been convicted,” Koenig says.
“Yesterday, there was a lot of talk about fairness, but most of what the state put in that motion to vacate, all the actual evidence, was either known or knowable to cops or prosecutors back in 1999. So even on a day when the government publicly recognises its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness, because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct, and that’s just this one case.”