High school prom prince sentenced to life in prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend given new chance at freedom

Fresh evidence uncovered by smash-hit series Serial has led to an upcoming retrial and now a new four-part TV documentary promises even more “ground-breaking revelations that challenge the state’s case”.

The conviction of teenager Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee, 18, became an international obsession when it was the subject of the 12-part audio series in late 2014.

Millions of listeners became armchair detectives as the cult podcast — the fastest ever to pass five million downloads — illuminated holes in the case against Hae’s ex Syed, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The saga of the 1999 killing, which until the podcast had just been a forgotten local US news story, was clearly ripe for a TV adaptation — and the only question was why it had taken so long.

There is no date yet for the TV series, made by Sky and HBO, to be aired, but its announcement comes after Syed’s conviction was ruled “invalid” in March and the order for a retrial was confirmed.

The show will start with Hae’s disappearance in Baltimore, Maryland and continue up to the present day, as Syed waits to hear if he will now finally be cleared.

Syed, who turns 38 on Monday, has always maintained his innocence of the first-degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment and robbery of which he was convicted in 2000.

The prosecution had argued that the popular and gifted student, then 18, strangled Hae in a fit of rage because she had ditched him.

But following a spectacular investigation by journalist Sarah Koenig for the first series of Serial, a three-judge panel has found Syed did not get a fair trial as he was let down by his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez.

In March the judges ruled that her “deficient performance prejudiced Syed’s defence”.

Gutierrez, who died in 2004, did not challenge the reliability of some possibly flawed mobile phone evidence — and also failed to contact Syed’s potential alibi, high school pupil Asia McClain.

No date has been given for the retrial but Syed’s new lawyer, C. Justin Brown, said: “It’s been a really long wait and that’s been hard and stressful not just for us, but for Adnan, who has now been in prison for 19 years, going on 20.

“I firmly believe he is innocent and our goal is to get him out of prison.”

Handsome athlete Syed and pretty, hockey-playing Hae had fallen for each other in 1998 when students at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High.

Hae had moved to the US from South Korea six years earlier, while Muslim Syed was born to parents who had migrated from Pakistan.

They tried to keep their romance secret from their parents becauses of the families’ cultural differences.

But that did not stop them from proudly posing for photos in April that year for their school prom — at which Syed was voted the title of “prom prince”.

However, by December that year, they had broken up.

Pals of the pair say the two remained friends, but the prosecution in Syed’s trial would argue that he was harbouring hidden rage and jealousy.

What is known for sure is that Hae was last seen alive on January 13, 1999. Her body was discovered a month later in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.

Syed, said to be a normal teenager with little in the way of vices apart from occasional marijuana use, quickly became the prime suspect.

The prosecution argued that after school on the day Hae disappeared, he had strangled her in his car.

Then they said he had called his former classmate Jay Wilds and told him: “That bitch is dead. Come and get me. I’m at Best Buy.”

Drug dealer Jay testified that Syed showed him Hae’s body in the boot of the car in the car park of the computer shop and joked that he had killed her where they used to have sex.

Jay also claimed he helped Syed bury the body in a shallow grave in the park’s woods.

Jay’s version of events, however, has been constantly called in to question.

He changed his story multiple times across his various police interviews and testimony at trial, and gave another version again in a 2014 interview with a website.

As a vague acquaintance rather than a close friend, it is unclear why Jay would have been chosen by Syed to help him dispose of the body.

Muddying the waters further is the fact that Jay borrowed Syed’s car and mobile phone on the day Hae disappeared.

Syed’s defence have argued that Jay lied to protect himself.

Meanwhile, at the time of Syed’s original trial, evidence from mobile phone towers appeared to support Jay’s account of where he and Adnan were on the day Hae disappeared, And it seemed to place them at the burial site.

However, this evidence is now thought to be unreliable. The judicial review found Syed’s original lawyer Christina Gutierrez “fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment” when she failed to raise questions about this at his trial.

The review also found Gutierrez made another unreasonable mistake by failing to contact Syed’s classmate Asia McClain, a potential alibi.

Syed himself failed to come up with a convincing explanation about what he was doing at the time of Hae’s disappearance, with his memories of the day frustratingly vague. Yet Asia — tracked down in a particularly dramatic episode of Serial — says she does remember seeing him.

She says he was in the local library at the same time the prosecution claimed he was murdering Hae.

Asia sent Syed two letters immediately after his arrest saying she — along with her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s friend — could remember seeing him that afternoon. Yet Syed’s lawyer failed to talk to her.

Asia testified at the 2016 hearing — which began the process to determine whether Syed would get a new trial — and said afterwards: “Do I think Adnan killed Hae? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

“By coming forward, I hope that I was able to provide enough information to the judge for him to be able to make a rational decision. Whatever that might be is in his hands.” Then there is Syed’s motive — which the prosecution argued was his anger over her getting a new boyfriend, fuelled by his possessiveness.

Excerpts from Hae’s diary, which seemed to suggest this kind of brooding jealousy, could have been cherry-picked and there was little other evidence to support the theory.

In fact, there is no physical evidence linking Syed to Hae’s murder and there are no witnesses who saw them together around the time of her disappearance or the alleged time of the murder. All these inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case have already been debated at length by Serial’s fans.

Even Judge Martin Welch, who presided over the 2016 hearing and found in favour of a retrial — a decision now confirmed by the three-judge panel — acknowledged the impact Serial had.

He wrote: “This case represents a unique juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest caused by modern media.”

Ahead of the new trial, it is up to state prosecutors to try to plug the holes in their case — and any new ones to emerge in the Sky series.

Syed, meanwhile, remains in prison having not been granted bail. Yet for the first time in nearly 20 years, there is a serious possibility he will not be there much longer.

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