Who will speak up for Hae Min Lee?
That’s what her family asked on Sunday, breaking their long-maintained silence amid consideration of a retrial for her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of her killing 16 years ago.
Since his arrest in 1999, Syed has denied that he had anything to do with the murder, arguing that he was not represented well at his trial, a claim that was highlighted in the popular podcast Serial.
His case was examined in the first season of the hit series and led to a flurry of online commentary about Syed’s potential innocence, shortcomings of the criminal justice system and perceived inadequacies of his defense team.
Few of the podcast’s discussions—or subsequent coverage of the case—focused on Lee, whose body was found buried in a park not far from her high school after she disappeared on Jan. 13, 1999.
“It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae,” her family said in a statement released on Sunday by the office of the Maryland attorney general.
Lee was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. with her brother and mother, Youn Wha Kim, who testified through a translator in 2000 that she moved her family to give them a “decent education and a decent future.”
The outgoing 18 year old with an unforgettable smile had not wasted the opportunity, exceling at school both academically and socially.
She played varsity field hockey as well as varsity lacrosse at Woodlawn High School, where she would have graduated with the Class of 1999.
The school retired Lee's jersey number, the Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
"A red field hockey jersey, No. 22, was pressed under glass," the paper wrote.
Lee also managed the boys’ wrestling team.
“I try to manage my school work and my after-school work,” she said in an interview with local Baltimore news station ABC2.
She was an honor roll student who belonged to the ecology club, French club and SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions.
The group dedicated a memorial plaque to Lee, which stands on the school’s grounds. Two trees were also planted on the property in her honor.
The family spoke out on Sunday as a State Circuit Court judge in Baltimore began reviewing whether Syed, now 35, should receive a new trial.
After her death, prosecutors said that Syed lured Lee to a Best Buy parking lot, where he strangled her and then buried her body in Leakin Park with the help of a friend. Syed was convicted of murder and kidnapping in 2000 and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
But in November, a judge ruled that Syed’s attorney could introduce testimony from Asia McClain, now Asia Chapman, an alibi witness who did not testify at the murder trial.
Chapman has said Syed’s original defense team never contacted her for her testimony, which his current attorney says amounts to ineffective counsel.
In a statement, Baltimore’s deputy prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah said Syed “received a tenacious and dogged defense in 1999 and 2000 by a team of some of Maryland’s best lawyers.
“To think there was an oops or an oversight back then, let alone a failure of constitutional dimension, is just not consistent with what we are now seeing in the defense’s file,” he said.
Lee’s family said the entire process has “reopened wounds few can imagine.”
“Unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials — so many witnesses, so much evidence,” the family said.
“We wish Ms. Asia McClain had watched too, because then she would not do what she is doing. Whatever her personal motives, we forgive her, but we hope she will not use Hae’s name in public, which hurts us when we hear it from her. She did not know Hae, and because of Adnan she never will.”
The family also said they believed Syed had received the best defense available, saying in their statement: “For those of us who saw the trials and heard the evidence, it is more clear than ever that Adnan is guilty and that his lawyer did the best job she could have for him.”
Those who knew Lee and Syed took to social media to express their support for her family and sorrow over the loss, still fresh for so many, even after 16 years.
“For all the horrible memories that so many of us have relived over the last two years none of them can compare to what either of them have been through. May justice prevail in the end and peace be found in your hearts. I will be praying for you for the next few days... and until we meet again,” one former classmate wrote on Facebook.
“It was so easy to smile and goof off around her,” another friend wrote, posting a photo of Lee smiling before prom.
.” … We ask that everyone remember who the criminal is and who the victim is,” Lee’s family said. “Weeks like this, it is easy to forget that seventeen years ago the beautiful, blossoming song of Hae Min Lee was silenced forever by Adnan Syed.
“In her diary, Hae once wrote: ‘Do love and remember me forever.’ We do, and we always will.”