Murder of Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee (Korean이해민; October 15, 1980), a Korean-American high school student, was last seen alive on January 13, 1999 in Baltimore County, Maryland. Her body was found four weeks later in Leakin Park; she had been killed by manual strangulation. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed,[2] was convicted of first-degree murder, largely on testimony of an acquaintance and mobile phone records; he was sentenced to life plus thirty years.[3][4][5]

Hae Min Lee
Hae Min Lee.jpg
BornOctober 15, 1980[1]
South Korea
DisappearedJanuary 13, 1999(1999-01-13) (aged 18)
Maryland, U.S.
Cause of deathManual strangulation
Body discovered
OccupationHigh school student
Known for
  • Murder victim
  • Subject of Serial
Murder of Hae Min Lee
Revised RomanizationI hae-min
McCune–ReischauerI haemin
IPA[iː hɛ̝.min]

In 2014 the podcast Serial brought international attention to the case, and Syed's conviction was questioned.[6] In 2016, Judge Martin P. Welch vacated Syed's conviction and ordered a new trial.[7] That decision was upheld by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in 2018[8] but overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2019.[9]

Background and disappearance

Hae Min Lee was born in South Korea in 1980 and emigrated with her mother Youn Kim and her brother Young Lee to the United States in 1992 to live with her grandparents.[10] Lee attended the magnet program at Woodlawn High School near Baltimore, Maryland.[11] She was an athlete who played lacrosse and field hockey.[12]

Lee disappeared on January 13, 1999. Her family reported her missing after she failed to pick up her younger cousin from daycare around 3:15 p.m. Lee had attended Woodlawn High School that day and had been seen by several people leaving the campus at the end of the school day.

Baltimore police immediately began investigating her disappearance.[13] On that day, officers called various friends of Lee to try to find her.[13] They reached Adnan Syed, a former boyfriend, early around 6:30 that evening; he said the last time he saw her was around the time classes ended at school. At 1:30am they reached her boyfriend, who said he had not seen her that day. On February 6, a dog-led search was conducted around Woodlawn High School.[13][14]

Homicide investigation

On February 9, Lee's partially buried body was discovered by a passerby in Leakin Park in Baltimore.[15] Police attention became focused on the person who reported finding the body.[13]

On February 12, 1999 the Baltimore City Police Homicide Division received an anonymous phone call suggesting that the investigators should focus on Lee's ex-boyfriend and classmate, Adnan Syed. On February 16, Baltimore Police applied for cellular phone records for a phone belonging to Syed. Among the people in the call log was Jay Wilds.[16]

Physical evidence collected in 1999 was not tested for DNA during the initial trial process.[17]

Syed was arrested on February 28, 1999, and charged with first-degree murder.[18]

Jay Wilds

Jay Wilds was the State's key witness at trial. He had Syed's cell phone on the day of the murder. He initially denied any knowledge of the crime. He eventually told police that Syed had shown him Lee's body in the parking lot of a Best Buy, and that he and Syed buried the body in Leakin Park at around 7pm that evening. Wilds' testimony was crucial to the prosecution's case.[19] The source of Wilds' testimony is disputed.[19][20]

Wilds frequently seemed to lose his way during one recorded interview, which was marked by knocking or tapping sounds. After hearing these sounds, Wilds seemed to remember what had happened. According to Wilds, Syed committed the murder. According to attorney Susan Simpson, who took part in both the Undisclosed podcast and the HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed, the tapping was evidence that the police were feeding Wilds with elements of his story. As further evidence, the podcast notes that at one point in the interview, Wilds says "top spots", which has no apparent relevance to the case. But the next point Wilds makes appears at the top of page 2 of a police document entitled "Jay's Chronology".[21][16][19][22][23][24]

In a 2014 interview with The Intercept, Wilds continued to maintain Syed's guilt, saying that "Anything that makes Adnan innocent doesn’t involve me". But he changed the time of the burial, saying that it happened after midnight.[25][26]

In a 2019 statement, Wilds said that his statement about seeing the body at Best Buy came from the police.[27][28][17][29]

Trials and appeals

Syed's family hired defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez to represent him. During Syed's first trial, jurors accidentally overheard a sidebar dispute between Gutierrez and the presiding judge, in which the judge accused Gutierrez of lying.[30] After learning that the jury had heard him do so, the judge declared a mistrial.

After a second trial that lasted six weeks, Syed was found guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery on February 25, 2000.[31] Syed was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.[2]

Syed appealed his conviction in 2003, which was unsuccessful. He later made an appeal for post-conviction relief in 2010, based on ineffective assistance of counsel. This was based on Gutierrez's failure to investigate an alibi witness, Asia McClain, who maintained she was talking with Syed in the library at the exact time that prosecutors said Syed attacked Lee in a Best Buy parking lot several miles away.[32][33] "The judge had ruled that Gutierrez’s decision not to call McClain as a witness was part of her defense strategy rather than an act of incompetence. The judge said the letters McClain sent Syed in jail were weak and possibly damaging evidence for the defense, since they did not state the time she saw him at the library and contradicted Syed’s own account from that day."[33] This appeal was initially denied in 2014.[33]

On February 6, 2015, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals approved Syed's application for permission to appeal for a potential hearing on the admissibility of the alibi testimony of Asia McClain.[34]

On May 18, 2015, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals remanded the case to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.[32] Syed's appeals lawyer, C. Justin Brown, filed a motion in court on August 24, 2015, pertaining to the cellular phone evidence, saying that a newly recovered document showed that the cell tower evidence used by prosecutors was misleading and should not have been admitted at trial.[35]

On November 6, 2015, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch ordered that Syed's post-conviction relief proceedings, to determine his eligibility for a new trial, would be re-opened, "in the interests of justice for all parties."[36] The post-conviction relief hearing, originally scheduled to last two days, lasted five days from February 3–9, 2016.[37] The hearing was attended by people from across the United States, including Sarah Koenig. Asia McClain testified that she talked to Syed at the library on January 13, 1999.[38]

On June 30, 2016, Judge Welch granted Syed's request for a new trial and vacated his conviction, ruling that Gutierrez "rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state's expert regarding the reliability of cell tower location evidence."[39] Judge Welch denied Syed's defense team's motion for bail for Syed in the interim.[40]

On March 29, 2018, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals, the second-highest court in the state, ruled that Syed deserved a new trial. The Court of Special Appeals' opinion said that Syed's counsel failed to contact a potential alibi witness, Asia McClain, who could "have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror."[41]

On March 8, 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals, on a 4–3 vote, reversed the lower appellate court's ruling, effectively denying the new trial.[42] The Court of Appeals agreed that Syed's legal counsel was deficient, but ruled that it would have not been enough to have swayed the jury to change their decision because, the judges said, the evidence against him was strong. It “does little more than call into question the time that the state claimed Ms. Lee was killed and does nothing to rebut the evidence establishing Mr. Syed’s motive and opportunity to kill Ms. Lee.”[42] They also ruled that Syed’s right to reexamine claims about the cellphone tower evidence had been waived because the issue had not been raised as part of Syed's original petition.[42]

On November 25, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected Syed's appeal for a new trial.[43]


Serial podcast

From October 3 to December 18, 2014, the murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest and trial of Adnan Syed was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial. It was developed by the creators of This American Life and hosted by Sarah Koenig.[44] The podcast episodes generated international interest in the trial and were downloaded more than 100 million times by June 2016.[7]

DNA testing

After the podcast, Serial, had ended in 2014, there were discussions by the Innocence Project about conducting DNA testing of the physical evidence collected in 1999.[45] Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun in early 2019 show that Maryland prosecutors tested multiple items tied to the murder in mid-2018, including the victim and her car, but Syed's DNA was excluded from matching any of it.[46]


In 2015, attorneys Rabia Chaudry, Susan Simpson, and Collin Miller began producing a podcast called Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed. Chaudry says she is Syed's friend from childhood and strongly believes in his innocence, while Simpson and Miller became interested in the case from listening to Serial. This podcast involved a detailed examination of the State of Maryland's case against Adnan Syed.[47][48]

Investigation Discovery aired a one-hour special called Adnan Syed: Innocent or Guilty? on June 14, 2016, based on a new analysis of evidence brought up in the podcasts.[49][50]

In 2016, two books were published about the case. Confessions of a Serial Alibi, written by Asia McClain Chapman, was released on June 7, 2016,[51] and Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial, written by Rabia Chaudry, was released on August 9, 2016.[52]

In May 2018, HBO announced it would produce a four-hour documentary based on the murder case called The Case Against Adnan Syed.[53] The first part of a four-part series was released on March 10, 2019.[54] The HBO documentary revealed that Syed turned down a plea bargain in 2018 that would have required him to serve four more years before release.[55]

Lee's family remains convinced of Syed's guilt, saying that it is now "more clear than ever" that he killed their daughter.[56]


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External links