Overview of Hae Min Lee
If there exists a fate worse than death, it surely must be when a victim is given little more than a supporting role in the events surrounding their own murder. Beyond this unthinkable fate, imagine further that your legacy would be forever entwined with - though some would say merely adjunct to - the individual that many people assume to be guilty of your murder. Such was the tragic fate of Hae Min Lee, a spunky Korean-American teenager who, in the winter of 1999, was brutally strangled, her body abandoned in Leakin Park, a city park in Baltimore, MD. The story of the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee - often superseded by what many consider to be the wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed - would burst upon the world in the fall of 2014, thanks to the invention of an entirely new means of sharing and consuming content for informational, investigative, and entertainment purposes. With the release of Serial, the true-crime podcast was born - and it was clear that the world had been waiting.
Roberta Kathleen Parks…Bonny Lee Bakley…Manuela Witthuhn…Ronald Goldman…Kent Heitholt…Teresa Halbach…Hae Min Lee. Outside of true crime circles, these names may seem only vaguely familiar; names you know you once heard but can’t quite put your finger on where. In contrast, names such as Ted Bundy, Robert Blake, Joseph James DeAngelo, O.J. Simpson, Ryan Ferguson, Steven Avery, or Adnan Syed elicit instant recognition from the world at large - many with no connection to the true crime community. In these cases, the perpetrator - or in some cases, wrongfully convicted accused perpetrator - has captured far more attention, media presence, and notoriety than the victims who lost everything; their families left to mourn while the world is preoccupied with the next sound byte.
Hae Min Lee was a popular, athletic senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland, who was only 18 years old at the time of her death. On January 13, 1999, she was last seen by friends driving away from school in her gray 1998 Nissan Sentra at around 2:15 pm after classes had finished for the day. She told friends she was going to pick up her 6 year old cousin at daycare, then go on to her shift at the LensCrafters at Owings Mills Mall where she worked alongside her current boyfriend, Don Clinedinst. Hae’s abandoned body would be discovered in a shallow grave in Leakin Park on February 9, when a school maintenance worker in search of a place to relieve himself claimed to have stumbled across her remains. However, as was later revealed during the murder trial of her accused killer, it was widely believed that she died just hours after last being seen leaving school. The individual accused of her murder was a classmate and ex-boyfriend with whom she'd recently broken up. After her death, friends and teachers eulogized Hae by recalling her joyous spirit, passionate dedication, zest for life, and enthusiasm for everything she loved. In what many believe to be a false conviction, her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was found guilty of her murder in 2000 and spent over two decades in prison until his conviction was recently overturned - and then reinstated - in a polarizing ruling that is currently under review by the Maryland justice system.
In life, Hae was an avid participant in the Magnet program at her school. She also found time to star on her school's field hockey and lacrosse teams, as well as manage the boys' wrestling team at Woodlawn High. She was a clear leader in all her endeavors, competing at the varsity level in both her sports and winning a spot on the Honor Roll. She participated in various clubs at school and was set to graduate with honors the year she died. In addition to her extracurricular activities, she worked at a local LensCrafters in preparation for a career as an optician. Hae was considered to be accomplished and mature beyond her years, perhaps due to the fact that as a pre-teen, she had emigrated from Korea in 1992 along with her mother, Youn Kim, and her brother, Young Lee. Although not born in the U.S., she was very Americanized - at least to the outside world. Hae preferred to keep her home life and school life separate, and her friends don’t recall being invited to her home to socialize. Additionally - like so many other teenage girls - Hae had an overly romantic streak with a true flair for the dramatic. Is there anything in the world quite as intense as the young love of a teenage girl? A glimpse into Hae’s diary (see Handwritten Letter of Hae Min Lee) reveals her recounting in purple prose her “undying love”; first for her “baby" Adnan from April through November of 1998, and just a few pages later, for a new boyfriend, Don. With the desperate intensity only a teenager can summon, Hae took the reader through her “forbidden” relationship with Adnan Syed; a tall, dark, Muslim-American teenager who was not permitted to date but whose heart she had won regardless, and the challenges that keeping their relationship a secret from their parents entailed. However, the stress of the cultural and religious differences began to take their toll in the fall of 1998. The luster seemed to have dimmed by early December, when Hae introduced her growing interest in her LensCrafters co-worker; the blonde, blue-eyed “older man”, Don Clinedinst. She had her first date with Don on New Year's Day 1999, and the diary ends the day before her death with the announcement that she had found her soulmate and declared her endless love for Don.
On the day she vanished, friends recalled seeing her leave school after classes on her way to pick up her cousin from daycare and then on to work, where she’d planned to see Don. (Later, this exact timing would be challenged.) When she did not show up at the expected time for the pickup or her work shift, Hae’s family grew worried and her brother filed a missing persons report with the Baltimore County Police Department. After she was reported missing by her family, authorities began investigating by calling around to Hae's friends, including Adnan, her best friend Aisha, and Hae’s new boyfriend, Don Clinedinst. After securing alibis from Don - who was confirmed by his manager to have been at work - and Adnan, who stated he was at track practice but which could not be confirmed by his coach - they checked hospitals with no success. It was later alleged that the police's investigation into Don's alibi was cursory at best, while Adnan remained the intense focus of the investigation. In fact, it was revealed that the manager who confirmed Don’s alibi was actually his mother. Police questioned students and faculty at Woodlawn High School, including Hae’s mentor, French teacher Hope Schab. Police informally leveraged Schab’s relationship with her pupils, implying that since she was just a few years older than her students, they might be more forthcoming with her than with the authorities. She developed a list of somewhat invasive and downright inappropriate questions regarding Hae and Adnan’s relationship to circulate among the students, in an attempt to determine what they might have known about the teen’s disappearance. However, most of these efforts were in vain, and no one seemed to have any knowledge of what had become of Hae.
On February 9, a school maintenance worker allegedly looking for privacy came across the partially buried body of Hae Min Lee in the woods in Leakin Park, a West Baltimore city park located about a mile from Woodlawn High School. The man - initially identified as "Mr. S" in the Serial podcast - claimed to have stopped on Franklin Town Road, pulled over, crossed the street to the opposite side of the road, and then walked 127 feet back into the woods to find a private spot in which to urinate when he spotted her on the other side of a 40-foot log running parallel to the road. Hae's body was buried behind the log next to the stream in a shallow grave, but it was later observed that she would not have been visible from where he said he noticed her. "Mr. S." was identified as Alonzo Sellers, who had a prior arrest record for indecent exposure and streaking. Additionally, when looking for a place to relieve himself, he had been drinking a 22-oz Budweiser while driving. He was initially looked at as a suspect but was ruled out after he passed a polygraph, and the investigation had already zeroed in on Adnan. The following day, Hae’s autopsy was performed. Her cause of death was listed as manual strangulation, with the manner of death being homicide. She also had blunt force injuries on her back and the right side of her head. While her time of death was listed as unknown, the State later made the case that she was killed by 2:36 pm and her body was placed in the trunk of her car, then removed 4-5 hours later for burial at approximately 7:00 pm. The autopsy stated: "The body was cold. Rigor was broken to an equal degree in all extremities. Lividity was present and fixed on the anterior surface of the body, except in areas exposed to pressure." In ensuing years, this statement about lividity would be scrutinized carefully and frequently revisited, as it was indicative of exculpatory evidence in the conviction of Adnan. As described, the lividity suggested that Hae was positioned face down and stretched out shortly after her death, and would have remained so for at least 8 to 12 hours before burial. This created inconsistencies with the State's case against Adnan. A few days after the autopsy, police received an anonymous call implying they should be looking no further than the ex-boyfriend in Hae’s murder. This February 12th call, combined with an earlier anonymous tip implicating Adnan in the murder, resulted in authorities requesting Adnan’s cell phone records. The call logs would lead to the questioning of two key witnesses in the case against Adnan - Jennifer Pusateri, and Jay Wilds.
Baltimore investigators interviewed Jenn first, which led them to question Jay, who would go on to become the State’s star witness for the prosecution. Participating in multiple interviews with authorities, Jay’s accounts were riddled with inconsistencies and seemingly contradicted not only Adnan’s recall of the day Hae vanished, but each other as well. Jay firmly contended that Adnan had killed Hae and then enlisted him to help bury her body in Leakin Park, but the times, circumstances, and even locations of the events changed constantly during his interrogations. He admitted that he and Adnan were not close friends; they merely hung out occasionally and smoked weed. When asked why he didn’t contact authorities upon learning of Hae’s death and Adnan’s involvement, Jay maintained that as a Black adult male and small-time drug dealer who sold weed to high school kids, he preferred to keep a low profile with police. He indicated that once he was convinced by authorities that his interrogation would not result in criminal charges against him for drug dealing, he felt able to be more forthcoming with the police. After his first interview, Jay was able to lead authorities to where Hae's car was parked. Despite the glaring inconsistencies and a fluid, confusing timeline, the police eventually made a deal with Jay that resulted in no time served for his testimony against his former classmate and associate. Armed with Jay’s account of the day, combined with the cell tower evidence that the prosecution purported placed Adnan in Leakin Park on the day Hae vanished, Baltimore detectives arrested Adnan at his home in the early morning hours of February 28. Adnan was an unlikely murder suspect; he was a Magnet student with a part-time job as an EMT who - other than smoking a little marijuana - had previously done nothing illegal, and he’d never been in trouble with the police before. Only 17 years old at the time of his arrest, he was charged as an adult with the first-degree murder of Hae Min Lee.
Adnan’s account of the day his former girlfriend went missing differed sharply from Jay’s. He recalled lending Jay his car and his cell phone in the late morning so he could drive to the mall and buy his girlfriend Stephanie a birthday present. After attending classes, Adnan remembered going to the Woodlawn Public Library to check his emails, where he had a conversation with an acquaintance, Asia McClain, who was there with her boyfriend. After leaving the library at 3:30 pm he said he attended track practice, which ended between 4:30 and 5:00 pm, before Jay returned to pick him up in his car at 5:00 pm. Adnan’s account would later be backed up by Asia herself, who wrote two letters detailing the specifics of their conversation and confirming that she and her boyfriend left the library at 2:40 pm, while Adnan remained behind. This timing is crucial, as it directly contradicted the State’s theory that Hae was killed by 2:36 pm. Cell logs show an incoming call at that precise time on Adnan’s cell phone that the State maintained was Adnan, who was calling Jay to let him know that he had killed Hae. When asked by police to speculate why Jay would have implicated him in a murder, Adnan could only surmise it might be due to his closeness to Jay’s girlfriend Stephanie. He was aware that her parents disapproved of Jay; in fact, they would prefer if their daughter dated Adnan instead.
Jay’s stories concurred with Adnan’s on the morning’s events, but then deviated. In his first interview, Jay alleged that Adnan called him at 3:40 pm at his friend Jenn’s house and demanded they meet on the strip off Edmonson Avenue. When Jay arrived, he claimed that Adnan showed him Hae's body in the trunk of her vehicle. Together they ditched Hae's car at the I-70 Park and Ride, smoked some weed at Patapsco State Park, and Jay dropped Adnan back at school for track practice at 4:30 pm. In his second telling, Jay insisted that after leaving Jenn's house, Adnan called him from the Best Buy parking lot to tell him to come and pick him up there. When he arrived 5 minutes later, Adnan showed him Hae's body in the trunk of the car. The two ditched the car at the Park and Ride and went looking for weed, calling two acquaintances named Nisha and Patrick around this timeframe. After scoring and smoking a blunt, Jay dropped Adnan off at track practice at 5:10 pm.
As for what occurred the evening of Hae’s disappearance, in Adnan's telling, the two visit "Cathy" (the alias used in Serial for Kristi Vinson, a friend of Jay's close friend Jenn) at 6:00 pm. While he was there, a Baltimore County police officer named Scott Adcock called Adnan’s cell phone, asking if he'd seen Hae. Adnan admitted to seeing Hae at school that day and, in fact, had asked her for a ride home. But he was detained and he assumed she’d gotten tired of waiting and simply left. (However, a few weeks later he told a different officer that he did not ask for a ride from Hae; it would be unnecessary since he drove his own car to school.) Adnan then left around 8:00 pm, picking up food for his father en route to the mosque for evening prayers, which ended at approximately 10:00 pm. In Jay's first interview with the police, he stated that after receiving a call from Adnan at 6:45 pm to pick him up from track practice, the two went to McDonald's at 7:00 pm, when the police called Adnan looking for Hae. According to Jay, the two left the restaurant and went to Jay's house for a shovel and a pick. They retrieved Hae's car around 7:30 pm, with Jay driving Adnan's car and Adnan behind the wheel of Hae's vehicle. They headed to Leakin Park, where Adnan hastily buried Hae's body in the woods. They drove around, ditching Hae's car in a lot and discarding her belongings - along with the shovel - in a dumpster in the Westview Mall. After Adnan dropped him off, Jay told Jenn that Adnan killed Hae.
After dropping his friend off at track practice at 5:10 pm, Jay's second report had him driving to Gilston Park to smoke some marijuana by himself, then returning to "Cathy's" house to indulge in some more weed. Jay picked Adnan up from practice at 6:00, returning to "Cathy's" residence. During this time both Hae's brother and Officer Adcock called Adnan, looking for Hae. The two left “Cathy's" at 6:30 pm. They got shovels at Jay's house, retrieved Hae's car from the Best Buy parking lot at 6:55 pm, and proceeded to bury her body in Leakin Park. As with his first telling, Jay reported they drove around discarding Hae's vehicle and her belongings before Adnan dropped him off at home. He then said Jenn picked him up and helped him dispose of his clothing, and they returned to the mall dumpster where they wiped fingerprints off of the shovel. Afterward, Jay went to see his girlfriend, Stephanie, and then Jenn and Jay returned to "Cathy's".
On December 8, 1999, 19 year old Adnan Masud Syed went on trial for the first-degree murder of Hae Min Lee. A thread of serious concern regarding anti-Muslim sentiment, racial bias, and general cultural misconception ran throughout the courthouse. The defense was worried that the crime might be perceived as a "Muslim honor killing", although it did not even fit the definition in that Hae would not have brought dishonor to the Syed family. The series of events occurring over the ensuing years would test the endurance of all involved, but none more than Hae’s grieving family. In addition to suffering the horrific death of their loved one, Hae’s family would see the first trial end in a mistrial only three days after opening arguments, when a disparaging remark in a sidebar between the judge and Adnan’s defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, was overheard by jury members. Adnan’s second trial began less than a month later, with the State relying heavily on the testimony of their star witness, Jay Wilds, who told yet another version of the events that had occurred on the day Hae vanished. Despite aggressive, intense questioning by Gutierrez, Wilds remained calm and testified for 5 days over the 6-week trial. That testimony - coupled with the cell tower record evidence presented - resulted in a murder conviction for 19 year old Adnan Syed. After only 2 hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment, and Adnan was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
After the conviction, the case would likely have fallen into obscurity like so many others; with the only additional trauma to the Lee family occurring whenever his case came up for appeal - and for Adnan’s supporters - the only ray of hope in a broken justice system the appeals process. Adnan had assembled a new legal team, led by C. Justin Brown, his PCR (post-conviction relief) attorney. The team included Rabia Chaudry, sister of his best friend Saad, who firmly believed in his innocence and fought tirelessly to prove it. Several appeals were filed and denied, as the process wound its way through the court system. That is, until October 2014, when Serial, an investigative podcast that explored the possible deficiencies in the State's case against Adnan Syed, was released. Prior to the release, only 27% of the U.S. had ever listened to a podcast and with its advent, it broke new ground and exposed flaws in the legal system. A spinoff of "This American Life", the episodic audio series achieved 300 million downloads in its first season and won numerous journalism awards, resulting in the creation of a whole new genre of storytelling - the true-crime podcast. Last year, Apple reported that the number of podcast subscriptions in all genres had reached one billion, and as of today, there are literally thousands of true-crime podcasts available for download on a variety of subjects, cases, and perspectives.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of Serial on the public, and more importantly, on the eventual appeals process. The podcast was influential in that it raised doubt about Adnan's guilt, exposing many issues and flaws in the investigation. Serial introduced the world to Asia McClain, the potential alibi witness for the defense who was never called to testify by Gutierrez, Adnan’s attorney. Revealing this omission would have a serious impact on future appeals. It also resulted in the involvement of the University of Virginia Innocence Project, which identified a new suspect, Ronald Lee Moore, a suspected serial killer. Released from prison shortly before Hae was murdered, Moore’s DNA was later linked to the murders of two women that occurred between 1996 and 1999. The team also asked the courts to test a physical evidence recovery kit in Hae's case to see if the DNA matched any other suspects.
In the spring of 2015, Adnan Syed supporter Rabia Chaudry - who had begun an investigation into his case since learning of his arrest - started the Undisclosed podcast with two legal colleagues. The podcast explored information and aspects of the case not revealed in Serial. The investigation uncovered troubling issues with the State's case, including inconsistencies in Jay's testimony and evidence of police coercion. The team also challenged the State's theory of Hae's death based on the autopsy report and questioned the validity of the cell tower records used in the trial. They found that a crucial piece of evidence, a fax cover sheet containing a disclaimer regarding the reliability of incoming call data, had been deliberately excluded when the prosecution presented the evidence. Based on the findings of the Undisclosed team, Adnan’s lawyer filed a motion to submit the cell tower records. The motion was granted, and a new PCR hearing was held to determine whether Adnan should be allowed a new trial, this time including the testimony of Asia McClain. Taking into account her testimony - coupled with the ineffectiveness of defense counsel and prosecutorial misconduct in the original trial - along with the unreliability of the cell phone data, the judge vacated Adnan’s conviction and ordered a new trial in June 2016. However, in 2019, after numerous attempts by the State to overturn the decision, Adnan was denied a new trial; disappointing his supporters but likely a welcome relief for Hae's family.
Where the case stands today. Despite this crushing blow for Adnan’s advocates, hope returned to his team in March 2019 when The Baltimore Sun released the results of DNA evidence testing conducted in 2018 at the behest of the State. Testing confirmed that none of the samples found at the crime scene in Leakin Park had tested positive for either Adnan's or Jay Wilds' DNA. Adnan's appellate attorney asserted that this confirmed there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime, although it wasn’t enough to win him a new trial. A few years later in March 2022, Adnan's legal team finally secured a victory in getting the State to agree to new testing on several items that had not been previously tested for DNA. Prosecutors concurred that because of advances in genetic profiling, further testing was merited. Then, in a stunning decision on September 14, prosecutors asked the Baltimore City Circuit Court to overturn Adnan Syed's conviction because they uncovered the potential involvement of two alternative suspects and key evidence that prosecutors may have failed to provide to Adnan's legal team. Additionally, there were significant reliability issues with the critical pieces of evidence presented at trial. Adnan's conviction was vacated a few days later, and he was released on his own recognizance. The judge confined Adnan to his home with a GPS ankle monitor while prosecutors had 30 days to decide whether to drop all charges or retry him. On September 19, 2022, Adnan was released from prison after serving 23 years for a crime in which he steadfastly maintained his innocence.
In a Zoom call on September 19, Hae's brother Young Lee asked the court to delay the hearing, but the request was denied and Adnan was released. The family’s attorney released a statement expressing their disappointment that the hearing had happened so quickly, denying them adequate time to be present and participate. To Hae’s family, it must have felt like the world was spinning out of control. While there is no reason to believe that the Lee family would support a wrongful conviction in Hae’s murder, it was entirely plausible that they would need to take a breath and slow down a process that was happening faster than anyone could imagine after decades of appeals, hearings, and decisions by the court. Conversely, Adnan’s supporters must have felt the decision came 23 years too late, and not a moment too soon. On October 11, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby confirmed that she had instructed her office to dismiss all charges after the results of advanced DNA testing excluded Adnan and that the State would not be pursuing a retrial. On February 2, the Lee family asked for Adnan Syed's murder conviction to be reinstated on the basis that Young Lee was not given proper notice or the opportunity to participate in the hearing that led to Adnan's release. They argued that he was not properly advised and was given only three days' notice before the hearing, making it impossible for him to arrange to travel from California, where he resided, to Maryland in time to participate. The Appellate Court of Maryland agreed and, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that the lower court failed to give sufficient notice to the Lee family when it scheduled the hearing that resulted in Adnan's release. Despite the reinstatement of his conviction, Adnan was not immediately taken back into custody. He currently remains free for a court-issued 60-day stay while the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office and other legal entities review the ruling.
The tumultuous events that occurred from the fall of 2022 to the spring of 2023 undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Hae's family. Losing a loved one to a brutal murder is enough tragedy for one family. Having to endure the release of the man they believed was responsible probably feels like a miscarriage of justice or a betrayal of their trust in the legal system, despite severe doubts regarding the validity of his conviction. True closure is seldom attainable in these situations, but their belief system has been shaken by the possibility that what they had considered to be true for more than two decades may very well no longer be the case. The loss of such a vibrant and promising young woman - an accomplished athlete, honor roll student, loving and caring daughter, sister, and friend - is profound; the pain is vast, unfathomable, and immeasurable. Despite all of the prior and current legal detours, justice for Hae Min Lee remains elusive, as her family anxiously awaits the next development in their ongoing quest for answers.