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Murder conviction is overturned for Adnan Syed of 'Serial' podcast

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In a Baltimore courtroom, a judge has ruled that after 22 years in prison, Adnan Syed is going home today. In 2000, Syed was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, the previous year when he was 17 years old. This afternoon, that conviction was overturned. Lee's killing and Syed's imprisonment were the subject of the hit podcast "Serial" back in 2014. It drew national, even international attention.

Well, NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas joins me to discuss this latest turn of events more than two decades after Hae Min Lee's death. Hi, Anastasia.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what triggered today's court hearing after all these years?

TSIOULCAS: Well, last week, prosecutors asked for Syed's conviction to be overturned. They're not saying that Syed is innocent, but that they lack confidence, quote, "in the integrity of the conviction." After Judge Melissa Phinn's decision today, the state's attorney for Baltimore City, Marilyn Mosby, had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARILYN MOSBY: I will remain committed to ensuring and pursuing justice and equality for all under the law, which includes victims, witnesses, accusers and the accused.

TSIOULCAS: Prosecutors say that when Syed stood trial, their predecessors ignored two other possible suspects. The prosecutors also note that these other suspects have a history of violent attacks on women, including after Syed was incarcerated. For more than two decades, Syed has maintained his innocence. And Judge Phinn ruled today that Syed deserves a new trial, and that in the meantime, he can return home.

KELLY: Wow. All right. What about another thing that has come up - it's been raised by critics who've studied this case closely - which is that back during the trial and the sentencing, prosecutors appeared to emphasize the fact that Syed is of Pakistani descent, that he comes from a Muslim family?

TSIOULCAS: That's correct, Mary Louise. For example, one of the prosecutors argued during the trial that the Pakistani American and the Muslim American communities were ready to abet Adnan Syed if he were to flee to Pakistan before sentencing. And that came up again during "Serial." Critics say that host Sarah Koenig made an overt point of discounting the possibility of racism when she interviewed Syed's mother, Shamim. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")

SHAMIM SYED: And everybody feel - the whole community - because it was a Muslim child, that's why they took him. It was easy for them to take him than the other people.

SARAH KOENIG: The notion that the cops and prosecutors in this case were driven by anti-Muslim feeling - by racism and by racism alone - that I found very hard to believe. And I still don't believe that, by the way.

KELLY: So many twists and turns in this case over the years. What now for Adnan Syed? What happens?

TSIOULCAS: Syed's conviction was overturned today, but there's still potentially a long road ahead for him, Mary Louise. Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether or not they want to drop the charges against him or try him again for murder. And that just may hinge on how much evidence they have now in a case that's more than 20 years old.

At the same time, the AP quoted a statement given in court today by Hae Min Lee's brother, Young Lee. He said he feels that prosecutors betrayed his family two decades ago, adding, quote, "this is not a podcast for me. This is real life."

KELLY: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reporting. Thank you.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.