Sarah Koenig, who over a decade ago brought the story of Adnan Syed to a mainstream audience on Serial, was surprised by the decision to release Syed after overturning his conviction for the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee.
Speaking to The New York Times following Syed being freed on Monday, Koenig said, “I was shocked. I did not see this coming at all. One of the first things I did was call Adnan’s brother and then his mother — they told me they didn’t know either. The prosecutors who filed the motion to release him kept it pretty tight, it seems.”
After more than two decades behind bars, Syed was freed, at age 41, after Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn in Baltimore overturned his conviction for the murder of Lee, who was Syed’s ex-girlfriend, ruling that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense. At the time of Lee’s murder, Syed was 17; he has maintained his innocence at all times since.
Syed, who has been placed on home detention with GPS monitoring, now faces either a new trial or dismissal of the case, a decision the state will make within 30 days.
Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun journalist, covered the case during the launch season of the hit true-crime podcast Serial in 2014 with 12 episodes that catapulted Syed’s story, and the popularity of serialized podcasts, into the zeitgeist. On Tuesday, she released a new podcast about the development, episode 13, which began with the Baltimore prosecutor’s office filing a motion last week to vacate Syed’s conviction.
“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent,” Koenig, host and executive producer, said on the episode. “They stopped short of exonerating. Instead, they’re saying that ‘back in 1999, we didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough. We relied on evidence we shouldn’t have, and we broke the rules when we prosecuted. This wasn’t an honest conviction.’”
Koenig told the Times that what the state is now saying must feel like “déjà vu” for the defense, citing familiar arguments like unreliable witness statements, unreliable cellphone evidence and an inconclusive timeline of the crime. But the main revelation, she says, is “that the state didn’t hand over information about a possible alternate suspect in the crime. That was a bit of a bombshell.”
Koenig says there are two unidentified suspects who were known at the time, but not shared with the defense. At least one of the suspects had a criminal history relevant to the crime, and one had a family connection to the location where Lee’s car was found.
“But the most damning thing,” she said, “is that a couple of people had told the prosecutor’s office at the time that one of the suspects had a motive to kill Hae, and even had threatened to do so. And that information was never told to the defense. That alone — not handing over important evidence — could be grounds to overturn a murder conviction.”
Noting that the list of systemic problems that led to Syed’s conviction are “nothing new” in the American justice system, Koenig said the entire goal of her podcast was to highlight that an 18-year-old went to prison for life based on a story that “wasn’t accurate.” She says, “That’s what we wanted people to think about: Even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?”
After drawing national attention, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller optioned the rights to give Syed’s case the TV treatment in 2015, following a bidding war. Though that series has yet to materialize, the third season of Serial is being developed as a limited series at HBO, with Koenig exec producing alongside LeBron James and his SpringHill banner.
Monica has a BA in Journalism and English from the University of Massachusetts and an MS in Journalism and Communications from Quinnipiac University. Monica has worked as a journalist for over 20 years covering all things entertainment. She has covered everything from San Diego Comic-Con, The SAG Awards, Academy Awards, and more. Monica has been published in Variety, Swagger Magazine, Emmy Magazine, CNN, AP, Hidden Remote, and more. For the past 10 years, she has added PR and marketing to her list of talents as the president of Prime Entertainment Publicity, LLC. Monica is ready for anything and is proudly obsessed with pop culture.