Murder podcast helped US inmate out of prison

In the twelve-part radio report, US journalist Sarah Koenig reopened the largely unnoticed murder of student Hae Min Lee. The then 18-year-old was killed in Baltimore in 1999 and buried in a park. Her then 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Syed came under suspicion after an anonymous tip and was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years for murder in 2000. He always maintained his innocence.

The journalist researched the case freshly in 2014 and raised numerous questions about the investigations, the process and thus the legality of the verdict. Among other things, traces of a possible defense witness and other suspects were followed and the probative value of mobile phone data that located Sayed at the crime scene was questioned. However, the podcast could not provide a “smoking gun” – i.e. clear evidence of guilt – and Koenig was repeatedly accused of letting Sayed wrap her up.

Between pop phenomenon and judicial criticism

The extensively researched series format, enriched with sound recordings from the interrogation room and designed to be quite exciting, was published over the course of three months and proved to be a pop culture phenomenon with a lasting influence. “Serial” brought podcasts into the cultural mainstream, the committee of the prestigious Peabody Awards noted when they presented Koenig with the television award in 2015. At the same time, the podcast unleashed a veritable wave of true crime that has not abated to this day.

Reuters/Carlos Barria

Syed has been fighting to have his sentence overturned for years

As can be seen today, the repercussions for the Sayed case itself were serious. On the one hand, it mobilized countless amateur investigators, on the other hand, it drew widespread criticism of the US judiciary. This is regularly criticized for misjudgments, but it is unclear how many such cases peter out or remain in the dark due to a lack of echoes.

“New information” brought about a turning point

In the Syed case, on the other hand, the general public ensured that the judiciary took up the cause again in 2016. The case went through several instances for years, and numerous appeals were rejected. But now the turning point came on Monday: A court in the US state of Maryland overturned the verdict against the 41-year-old after the responsible prosecutor had requested this step in the previous week.

The reason for this is “new information” about two other possible suspects and “unreliable mobile phone data”. After a year of investigations, there are “serious doubts about the reliability of the most important evidence” and “no confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” according to the prosecutor. Syed deserves “a new trial where he is adequately defended and the most recent evidence can be presented,” the prosecutor said. At the same time, it was emphasized that this was no proof of Syed’s innocence.

Podcaster Sarah Koenig

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

“Serial” creator Sarah Koenig at the release. She is also currently reporting on the new developments.

Syed should be released while prosecutors consider whether to reopen the case or drop the charges against him. The public prosecutor’s office has 30 days to do this. With the court’s decision, Syed will now be released from prison and initially placed under house arrest, US media reported. He did not comment on his release, but was greeted by cheering supporters.

The victim’s family had always been convinced of Syed’s guilt. According to the New York Times, she criticized that she was not informed of the decision in good time. “This is not a podcast for me,” the murder victim’s brother said in an appointment with the court. “This is real life – a never-ending nightmare for more than 20 years.” He feels “betrayed” and “taken by surprise” and is frustrated by the many turns that the case is taking. At the same time, he is not against a new trial and has confidence that the judiciary will adjudicate.

“Exceptional, everything about it”

The dismissal was “extraordinary, everything about it,” said “Serial” creator Koenig in a specially produced new special episode. In this, Koenig describes that, among other things, handwritten notes in the investigative files that were reviewed again brought about the turning point. According to the notes, there were anonymous tips that had been received independently of two suspects that had not been adequately investigated. However, this new information would have been enough to undermine the probative value of the entire procedure.

The case “was and still is a mess,” Koenig said. He points out “every chronic problem that our system has. A police force that uses questionable interrogation methods. Prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense. Questionable scientific approaches. Extreme prison sentences. Young people treated like adults. How grueling it is to bring a case back to court once you’ve been convicted.” The system took more than 20 years to correct itself – and only in this one case.

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