RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's hear more now about a trial in Baltimore drawing national interest. Closing arguments are expected today in the new hearing for Adnan Syed. If you followed the public radio podcast “Serial,” you’ve heard of him. Syed has spent more than 15 years in prison for the murder of his high school girlfriend, a murder he maintains he did not commit. Andrea Seabrook has been in the courtroom and filed this report.
ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: At the end of each day, after clerks and cops and reporters have gone home, the family and friends of convicted murderer Adnan Syed gather. They huddle together on a dark, cold side street behind Baltimore City's courthouse, waiting for their star to emerge.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling, cheering).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We love you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where is your helicopter? Where’s your helicopter?
SEABROOK: Police officers lead the man, shackled and chained, out of the back door of the courthouse into an armored van. And yes, the family is shouting, hey, Adnan, where is your helicopter?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where did you park the helicopter?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Laughter).
SEABROOK: I'll get into that in a second. Here’s the big picture. More than 15 years ago, Adnan Syed was a teenager, a student at a suburban Baltimore high school. On a January day in 1999, his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, disappeared. Some weeks later, her body was found mostly buried in a wooded park. Maryland state prosecutors relied on cell phone records and the testimony of one of Syed’s friends to make the case that Adnan Syed had murdered Hae Min Lee shortly after school on the day she disappeared. The jury convicted. Syed got life in prison.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “SERIAL”)
AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a Global Tel Link prepaid call from…
ADNAN SYED: Adnan Syed.
SEABROOK: More than a decade later, reporter Sarah Koenig of the public radio show This American Life picked up the story and ran.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, “SERIAL”)
SARAH KOENIG: I’m Sarah Koenig.
SEABROOK: Koenig and her team pulled the original case apart. They tracked down new evidence, new witnesses, new leads, meanwhile creating one of the most downloaded podcasts ever. On the basis of that work, Adnan Syed eventually won a new day in court, a hearing before a judge to determine if Syed’s original defense against those murder charges was so poorly done he should get a new trial. That's what's been before the court these past few days. And so what’s happened? Well, lawyers and judges tell me it’s totally bananas, completely out of the ordinary for what is usually a procedural motion. Reporters pop in and out of the courtroom, tweeting details, dashing off posts, blogging their opinions. An exchange between prosecutors and a witness raised the pope, the president and the space station. And the dashing Asia McLean, Syed’s alibi who never testified, finally took the stand - and then that helicopter. Syed’s defense attorneys suggested it's the only explanation for calls so quickly between distant cell towers. The thing that is striking, though, is that ultimately, it’s not the accused and the victim who are really the subject of this hearing. It’s something bigger, the criminal justice system itself.
DOUGLAS COLBERT: And that's healthy for the whole system.
SEABROOK: Doug Colbert is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
COLBERT: Hopefully this is going to open it up so that you folks, the fourth estate, the journalists, are going to go back to doing the kinds of reporting and not simply accept what the police or the prosecution tell us.
SEABROOK: That certainly seems to be the case here, anyway, because both sides - defense and prosecution - agree that this hearing would likely never have happened without the investigation of the podcast “Serial.” For NPR News, I'm Andrea Seabrook in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.