As devoted Serial fans debate whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee, the man serving a life sentence pursues a final chance to reverse his conviction

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Credit: Courtesy of Yusuf Syed/AP Photo

The 2000 murder conviction of a Baltimore-area high school student, Adnan Syed, is making headlines again, this time for being the centerpiece of 2014’s most-downloaded podcast, Serial.

But even as some 1.5 million fans tune in each week to hear reporter Sarah Koenig’s exploration of whether he strangled his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, in 1999, Syed himself, now 34 and serving a life sentence, continues to fight his case through the legal system.

In January, a court will hear an appeal that is likely to raise the issue of whether his then-lawyer neglected to seek a plea deal.

“It’s an unusual phenomenon. The court of Special Appeals has shown some interest in the case and asked the state to respond to our application, which is more than they usually do in this procedural posture,” Syed’s current lawyer, C. Justin Brown, tells the Associated Press. “But I truly think the appellate courts make their decisions based on the merits of the case, and not the popularity of a podcast.”

As Emily Condon, Serial‘s production manager, notes, the appeal was in motion long before the podcast was launched as a spin-off of This American Life in October and became an Internet phenomenon of its own.

“None of this, in any way, has anything to do with our reporting on this story,” Condon tells PEOPLE in an emailed statement. “The post-conviction petition pre-dated this story, and Serial has nothing to do with his appeal, or the appellate court’s order.”

For Syed, who has cooperated with Koenig’s reporting, giving her hours of prison phone interviews, this latest court action may be a last chance to overturn a conviction for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit.

Says Brown: “There are three parts to the legal process: a trial, then an appeal, then you have post-conviction relief. This is the last step.”

On the show, Koenig often expresses her difficulty squaring the seemingly affable guy on the other end of the phone with the person found guilty of such a heinous crime.

In one episode, Syed tells her, “I would rather someone say, ‘Adnan, I think you’re a jerk, you’re selfish, you know, you’re a crazy SOB, you should just stay in there for the rest of your life except that I looked at your case and it looks, you know, like a little off.’ ”