Serial Podcast Subject Adnan Syed Is Officially Free: All Charges Dropped

The 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee is now an unsolved case. Prosecutors formally drop all charges against Syed.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
5 min read
Adnan Syed leaving the courthouse after his murder conviction was vacated

Adnan Syed leaves the courthouse on Sept. 22 after Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn vacated his first-degree murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee. 

Jerry Jackson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Baltimore prosecutors dropped all charges against Adnan Syed, whose case was highlighted in the first season of the Serial podcast eight years ago. 

Syed was released from prison in September after a judge vacated his 2000 conviction for the murder of his former high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Maryland Office of the Public Defender said Tuesday in a statement that it dropped the charges because DNA testing "excluded Mr. Syed from the DNA recovered from the evidence." The statement did not go into specifics about where the DNA came from.

"Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man," Syed's attorney, Erica Suter, said in a statement. "The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit." 

In September, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn vacated the murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment convictions against Syed and ordered him released without bail. 

Here are the basics of the podcast and the case explained. 

Who is Adnan Syed?

Syed is now 41, but he was just a teen when he was convicted of his former girlfriend's murder. As the Serial podcast pointed out, there were numerous issues with the case. Syed is a Muslim from a Pakistani immigrant family, factors that some experts say were used against him in his trial. Syed himself was born and raised in the US. He dated Hae Min Lee while they were Baltimore-area high-school students.

What were some of the problems with the case?

Syed's attorney, Cristina Guitierrez, was disbarred with her consent in 2001 and then died in 2004. The court concluded the trial was flawed because the state failed to disclose key evidence. Prosecutors failed to properly turn over evidence that could have allowed for "substantial and significant probability that the result would have been different," Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn said, according to a report from NBC News.

What is Serial's connection?

In the fall 2014, there was no hotter podcast than Serial when it began unfolding Syed's case. In fact, it was Serial that taught many people what a podcast even was. Serial is an investigative podcast developed by This American Life, and co-created and produced by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder. It won a Peabody Award in 2015. The show's later seasons have focused on other topics, but none has caught the nation's interest in the same way as the first season, which focused on Syed's murder conviction. SNL even did a Serial skit parodying the podcast, in which host Koenig (played by Cecily Strong) investigates the story of Kris Kringle. 

What is Syed doing now?

In September, Syed was photographed leaving the Baltimore courthouse to the cheers of supporters. At the time he was ordered to home detention and required to wear a GPS monitor. With the charges dropped, he is now off home detention and is a free man. He did not immediately make a public statement.

When he was released in September, Syed's longtime friend, attorney Rabia Chaudry, shared photos of Syed on Twitter. In a short video, he's seen eating samosas out of a refrigerator. Chaudry captioned the video, "Leftovers at home never tasted so good!!"

Chaudry posted a statement after the charges were dropped, saying she had prayed for decades for Syed's freedom.

"My final prayer is that the killer is soon arrested, and I believe with my entire heart this will happen," she said.

What has Lee's family said?

Syed's supporters may be relieved, but Lee's murder remains unsolved. 

"Hae Min Lee's family learned through media accounts this morning that the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against Adnan Syed," according to a statement from Lee family attorney Steve Kelly, Baltimore's WBAL-TV reported. "The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding. By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the state's attorney's office sought to silence Hae Min Lee's family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the state so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years. All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today's actions robbed them of both."

Hae's brother, Young Lee, who lives in California, had asked Phinn to postpone the September hearing about overturning Syed's conviction for one week, so he could attend in person. That request was denied, with the judge saying sufficient notice was given and allowing instead a half-hour delay so Young Lee could join virtually.

When he did, he told the court he felt blindsided and betrayed, according to The Baltimore Sun.

"This is not a podcast for me," he said. "This is real life."

He went on to say he respects the criminal justice system and isn't against further investigation, but that he believed Syed's conviction should stand.

"Every day when I think it's over ... it always comes back," he said, according to the Sun. "It's killing me."

Will Serial offer an update?

Probably. Back in September, the podcast released a new episode outlining the latest developments. That episode also ran on New York Times podcast The Daily. The Times bought Serial Productions, the production company behind Serial, for about $25 million in 2020.

The most interesting thing about the new Serial episode? Koenig shared that there were handwritten notes found in the case files discussing phone calls about a potential alternate suspect who reportedly had a motive to kill Lee and even made threats to do so. The information was never shared with Syed's attorney. 

In fact, the state's motion says it has developed more information about two suspects who aren't named, but who might have been involved and who weren't properly ruled out. Both were known to detectives at the time. Serial didn't name the suspects, but Koenig said she knows who they are. 

As Koenig points out in the new episode, the new information doesn't solve the case or lay out an alternate theory of who killed Lee. It just points out flaws in Syed's case.