What were you doing on October 25th? Can you remember where you went, what you did and who you talked to? Can you give the exact times of everything you did that day?
These were the questions faced by Adnan Syed, a 19-year-old student from Baltimore, in February 1999. Six weeks earlier his ex-girlfriend, an 18-year-old fellow student named Hae Min Lee, had been strangled and buried in a shallow grave.
Syed and a friend gave conflicting accounts of their behaviour and whereabouts that say. Syed was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Then the story died for 15 years, until it was resurrected by Sarah Koenig, a producer and journalist on the award-winning US radio show This American Life. In a series of weekly podcasts that are now the world's most popular, according to iTunes, Koenig began looking again at the case, wondering if Syed had been wrongly convicted.
Koenig and her team have now put out 10 instalments of Serial (free from iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher and serialpodcast.org). With more than a million listeners, Serial is hailed as being as intriguing and addictive as any HBO or Netflix hit, only dealing with a real crime.
This week it was announced that Syed will have an appeal hearing in January, to deal with his denial of “postconviction relief”. Syed’s lawyer, C Justin Brown, says that although the huge interest in the case is unusual, he believes that “the appellate courts make their decisions based on the merits of the case and not the popularity of a podcast”.
In the most recent episode of Serial Koenig addresses the reports that Syed has a new hearing. "It's not quite true that it's an appeal. He's appealing the denial of postconviction relief," she says. What this means is that, having exhausted the appeal process – a previous application was turned down – Syed has one last chance to have certain aspects of his trial looked at again.
“The chances of him getting parole are slim. They are slim for anyone with a life sentence for first-degree murder, but especially if you don’t show remorse,” Koenig says in Thursday’s podcast. Syed has always protested his innocence.
There is no mystery about the podcast's wide appeal. Serial works because of Koenig's narration. She gets emotionally involved in the case, and acknowledges how hard it is to work out what happened. She goes from saying there is no way Syed could be a murderer, because when she meets him in prison he has giant brown eyes – "could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend?" – to wondering, minutes later, if he's a psychopath.
The narrative is punctuated by phone calls from Syed, in prison, which sound like two friends catching up with each other until Koenig begins questioning him.
Most of the online discussion about the show takes place on Reddit, the social-networking service. Last month a man who said he is Hae Min Lee's bother posted a message: "To me it's real life – to you listeners it's another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren't there to see your Mom crying every night, having a heart attack when she got the news that the body was found . . ."
Serial was due to have only two more episodes, next Thursday and on December 18th. This week's news of Syed's "last chance" hearing will likely ensure that the series continues until the courts reach a decision.