On Monday afternoon, a Baltimore judge ruled to vacate Adnan Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Syed, the subject of the groundbreaking 2014 podcast Serial, had been sentenced to life in prison, served 23 years behind bars, and has attempted numerous times to have his case appealed. He has always maintained his innocence.
Last year, Syed’s new lawyers reopened the case and discovered “significant reliability issues” in the evidence used in the original 2000 trial; prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence regarding credible suspects to the defense. Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide on either conducting a new trial or dropping the case against him.
Outside of the Baltimore courtroom and online, people celebrated the news of Syed’s overturned conviction. Every person doing so likely learned about Syed’s case through Serial—a gateway into the podcasting genre for millions of listeners, including myself, who got emotionally invested in Syed’s fight for exoneration. In its first three months, Serial was downloaded over 40 million times.
While the judge did not declare Syed innocent, his release due to poorly executed justice does feel like a satisfactory ending—for him. But for Hae Min Lee’s family, such an ending is impossible. Instead, a wound remains open.
Her brother, Young Lee, appeared via video conference at yesterday’s trial, saying he felt “blindsided” and “betrayed” by the motion to vacate Syed’s sentence. He said to the court a sentiment his family has shared before: “This is not a podcast for me…this is real life—a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.” There’s been so much understandable focus on the justice system’s fumbling of Syed’s case. Errors and lazy prosecution have kept a potentially innocent man behind bars for longer than he was ever outside of them. Syed’s case is outrageous not only in how it was mishandled, but in how common that type of mishandling is.
But the broken system’s errors harm more than just him. A family is forced to continually rehash the most traumatic event of their lives every time it is revealed that prosecutors dismissed or botched critical evidence. On top of that, Serial’s true crime re-telling of Hae Min Lee’s death puts that pain up for public consumption. “When I think it’s over, it always comes back,” Lee told the judge.
But because of the nature of the podcast’s narrative, that’s not what this legal decision feels like for those of us who listened to a story based on the death of his sister nearly a decade ago. The sentiment I felt learning the news on Monday was articulated across Twitter: Syed’s release felt like the “end of podcasting;” the medium has come full circle. On Tuesday, Sarah Koenig, the host and producer of Serial, released a 13th episode of Syed’s season; it felt like a tying of loose ends. A danger of bringing a complicated story like this to the general public for consumption is our desire for neat endings, something crime stories and the criminal justice system rarely offer.
As people celebrate Syed’s hard-fought release from prison after 23 years, it’s worth holding space for the suffering forced upon Hae Min Lee’s family. A new trial, should prosecutors decide on one, could potentially convict her actual killer. I want to hope that it does, because right now, the mystery and pain of her brutal murder lingers.