Nine weeks ago, the name Adnan Syed meant nothing to most people. Now, he’s the main topic of conversation for more than 1.5 million people every week.
The 34-year-old American Muslim has become a household name while serving a life sentence in a western Maryland state prison for first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment.
He was convicted in 2000 of the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, 18, after a six-week trial in Baltimore.
For the past 15 years, he has maintained his innocence, saying that while he can’t remember precisely where he was at the time of death, he knows he wasn’t strangling Lee and hiding her body in the boot of his car.
Until October this year, there was nothing particularly remarkable about his case. Then everything changed, following an email from a friend to a producer associated with This American Life, a public-service-radio show, that catapulted him into the spotlight, and could even lead to his freedom.
Syed is now the star – if that's the right word for a convicted killer – of Serial, the most successful podcast ever made, averaging more than 1.5 million listeners per episode and amassing more than five million listens or downloads on iTunes. Such is its success that there is even a podcast about the podcast.
It's the most listened to podcast in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada, and features in the top 20 News and Politics iTunes list in the UAE. Virtually every major newspaper (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian) and news magazines (including Time and New York) have written about Serial and Syed. There are ringtones made from the Serial theme tune, YouTube parody videos, online quizzes and Free Adnan T-shirts, jumpers and baseball caps.
This week, the team are taking a Thanksgiving break, but Serial will likely remain the main topic of conversation round many a Thanksgiving table.
The weekly show, presented by the American journalist Sarah Koenig, examines every aspect of the case and leaves listeners with just one question: “Did he really do it?” Nine episodes in, it’s still not clear. At least, not as clear as it was for the 12-person jury who convicted him after a six-week trial and two hours of deliberation.
Syed met Lee, from a Korean immigrant family, when they were students at Woodlawn High School, Baltimore County.
The podcast has examined the difficulties of finding a balance between being a good Muslim born to Pakistani immigrant parents and being a teenager growing up in a big American city. Syed smoked, drank and had girlfriends – and concealed all these activities from his conservative parents.
Syed and Lee became friends at some point during the spring of 1998, and began a romantic relationship soon after.
Koenig reads deeply personal excerpts from Lee’s diary in her podcast that offer an insight into the way Lee felt during and after the relationship. From what she writes, and from what their friends say, they were a normal teenage couple who had normal fights and break-ups, followed by normal make-ups.
They kept their relationship secret from their families for fear they would try to split them up. Syed’s fears were proved correct later that year when his parents found him with Lee at his homecoming dance and made him leave. According to Lee’s diary, it was too much to handle and the pair split soon after.
In one entry, she wrote: “He told me that his religion means life to him. He tried to remain a faithful Muslim all his life, but he fell in love with me, which is a great sin. But he told me there is no way he’ll ever leave me, because he can’t imagine a life without me. Then he said that one day he’ll have to choose between me and his religion.”
Koenig has made much of the fact the majority of their friends remember them parting on fairly amicable terms and said Syed wasn’t anywhere near upset enough to kill Lee. There were a few, however, who said Syed didn’t handle the break-up well and might have been angry enough to strangle his ex.
By the start of the next year, Lee had a new boyfriend, Don, who worked with her at an optician’s.
In a diary entry on January 12, 1999, which turned out to be her last, she seemed happy and in love. Up until that point, most of which was covered in weeks one and two of the podcast, everything seemed fairly cut and dried. But then listeners heard more about Lee’s disappearance and, more importantly, learnt more about the main prosecution witness and Syed’s former friend, Jay.
It’s also at this point that people’s memories and interpretations of events and conversations get fuzzy. When Koenig finds a witness who swears Syed was in a certain place at a certain time, she also stumbles across someone else who swears he wasn’t.
Syed has admitted he used to smoke a lot of marijuana, particularly when he was hanging around with Jay. They used to smoke at Jay’s house, in the car or at the homes of mutual friends.
This might go some way towards explaining why Syed, even when his freedom depended on it, couldn’t say for sure where he was when he was supposedly killing his ex-girlfriend.
He might have been at athletics practice. He might have been at the library. He just can’t remember.
Even this might have been enough to keep him out of jail if it hadn’t been for Jay, who swore under oath he knew for sure Syed had killed Lee, because he had seen her body himself.
According to police, Lee was last seen at about 3pm on January 13, 1999, driving from the school in her 1998 Nissan Sentra.
She allegedly told someone she was on her way to pick up her young niece, before going onto the optician’s where she worked.
Almost four weeks later, her body was found in Baltimore’s Leakin Park by a man Koenig calls Mr S, who she later reveals had a conviction for indecent exposure.
An anonymous call eventually tipped police off about Syed, who, without a solid alibi and in light of Jay’s testimony that Syed called him to help dispose of the body, was arrested and charged.
Jay claimed that Syed gave him his mobile phone and car so that he could ask Lee for a ride after school, and then phoned Jay to come and get him when he’d murdered her.
There was a 21-minute window between Syed leaving school and his phone receiving a call that Jay claimed was the call to go and get his friend. Syed's call log and data from mobile-phone towers didn't completely rule this out at this time, but Serial has revealed that most of the tower evidence now contradicts Jay's story. Advances in technology also make this evidence less watertight.
But after his trial, in which he didn’t take the stand, Syed was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Since Serial first aired, his defence lawyer Cristina Gutierrez has become the topic of dozens of online chats and Reddit threads. She allegedly ignored a letter from a possible witness who said she saw Syed in the school library at the time he was supposed to be killing Lee.
The girl, Asia McClain, didn't hear anything more about the alibi until Koenig contacted her to appear on Serial.
It could be this lack of contact that gives Syed his best chance at freedom. An appeal is currently under way to show that Syed received ineffective defence counsel because Gutierrez failed to contact a “credible alibi witness”, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Gutierrez resigned in 2001 after a client’s money went missing from a trust account. She died of a heart attack three years later.
The Innocence Project, the American organisation dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted people, is also examining his case, something they had so far refused to do when contacted by Syed and his friends. For those that support Syed, there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
Rabia Chaudry, the big sister of Syed's best friend Saad, emailed Koenig about the case earlier this year. She has been blogging about the Serial podcasts since they started and sometimes reveals otherwise unknown snippets of information.
Chaudry claims that she doesn't "think" Syed is innocent; she "knows". Thanks to Serial, she now has hundreds of thousands of people on her side.
Through the podcast, which is expected to last for another three episodes, Syed’s life has become trial by internet.
“I had nothing to do with this right? But at the end of the day, I have to take some responsibility,” Syed told Koenig in a phone interview from prison. “You don’t really know the things that my younger brother went through. What my family goes through. At the end of the day, if I had been just a good Muslim, somebody that didn’t do any of these things... It’s something that weighs heavily on me. I mean, no way, I have absolutely nothing to do with Hae’s murder, but at the end of the day... I can’t... yeah.”
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