Adnan Syed — the man whose legal saga spawned the hit podcast “Serial” — walked away from a Baltimore courthouse Monday free of shackles after 23 years.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed’s murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee after prosecutors raised doubts about his guilty finding because of the revelation of alternative suspects in the homicide and unreliable evidence used against him at trial.
Saying her ruling was in the “interest of justice and fairness,” Phinn ordered Syed placed on home detention, wearing a GPS monitor, while Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office chooses whether to drop his charges or to try him again for murder in his ex-girlfriend’s death. Prosecutors have 30 days to make a decision.
Dressed in a white shirt and black tie, Syed smiled while descending the courthouse steps to the raucous cheers of supporters, family and friends. He did not speak to reporters on his way out of court, but his attorney, Erica Suter, recalled her client telling her “he couldn’t believe it’s real” after Phinn’s ruling.
Prosecutors said a yearlong investigation conducted alongside Suter showed that authorities knew about at least one alternative suspect before his trial and withheld that information from his defense, committing what’s known as a Brady violation.
While Mosby would not commit Monday to dismissing the case, she conceded much of the evidence relied upon in the original trial was now useless. Regardless of the decision, Mosby said Monday’s outcome reflected her office’s commitment to an equitable justice system.
“I said this four months following the death of Freddie Gray and I’m saying it four months before the end of my term: Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit,” Mosby said.
But Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state for Syed’s various appeals, released a statement after Phinn’s ruling saying there was not a Brady violation and there were “other serious problems” with Mosby’s office’s motion. Frosh’s statement did not elaborate.
“Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone from her office bothered to consult with either the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case or with anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations,” Frosh said. “The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”
Lee, 18, was strangled to death and buried in a clandestine grave in Leakin Park. Authorities at the time said they suspected that Syed, her ex-boyfriend, struggled with her in a car before killing her. The state’s theory then was that the popular honors student at Woodlawn High School couldn’t handle it when Lee broke up with him. He was 17 at the time of his arrest, and has been behind bars since.
Syed, now 41, has always maintained his innocence. Suter declared her client innocent in court, and decried prosecutors for withholding evidence that could have proved as much for decades.
“If that evidence had been disclosed, perhaps Adnan would not have missed his high school graduation, or his pre-med plans, or 23 years of birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, community events and everyday moments of joy,” Suter said after court.
In court, Syed was stoic when Phinn ruled; his family members gasped, embraced and wept. The audience gallery erupted when the judge adjourned court.
Earlier, the hearing assumed a tense tone after an attorney representing Lee’s relatives asked for a postponement, saying his clients, who live on the West Coast, hadn’t been given enough notice to attend the hearing. Phinn denied the motion, but paused proceedings for 30 minutes so Lee’s brother could find a private place to patch into the hearing by video.
Allowed to speak before the attorneys, Young Lee said he felt blindsided and betrayed by the prosecution’s decision to seek to vacate Syed’s conviction. He choked up as he spoke to the judge.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” Young Lee told Phinn.
Lee said he respects the criminal justice system but described his and his relatives’ enduring grief. He said he’s not against continued investigation but that Syed’s conviction should stand.
Every day when I think it’s over ... it always comes back,” he said. “It’s killing me.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman said in court that the prosecutors’ decision on how to proceed with Syed’s case hinges on an ongoing investigation focused on the alternative suspects. Baltimore police have reopened their probe into Lee’s homicide, and Feldman promised her office would allocate all the resources it could.
“We need to make sure we hold the correct person accountable,” said Feldman, chief of the office’s Sentencing Review Unit.
Syed’s first trial in 1999 ended with a mistrial. In 2000, a jury found him guilty of murder. The judge handed down life plus 30 years in prison at sentencing.
Despite fighting to uphold the conviction in years past, prosecutors now say Syed may not be Lee’s killer. Prosecutors have known since 1999 of two alternative suspects who may have killed Lee, according to their motion to overturn his conviction.
One of the suspects had threatened her, saying “he would make her disappear. He would kill her,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors said the state did not disclose the alternative suspects to Syed’s defense before trial, meaning his attorneys couldn’t use that information to argue his innocence to a jury.
Prosecutors described one of the suspects as a serial rapist, saying the suspect was convicted in a series of sexual assaults after Syed’s trial. Police discovered Lee’s car near the residence of one of the alternative suspects, the state’s motion said.
Syed was convicted, in part, because of cellphone location data that has since been found to be unreliable, according to prosecutors. They also highlighted the inconsistent statements of his co-defendant, Jay Wilds, who testified against him.
“Mr. Syed’s conviction was built on a flawed investigation,” Suter said in court. “This was true in 1999 when he was a 17-year-old child. It remains true today.”
Despite the developments, prosecutors said they are not prepared to declare Syed innocent.
Syed’s conviction became a matter of international intrigue after “Serial,” a podcast released in 2014 that pioneered the true crime genre, raised new questions about Lee’s death. Since then, his legal journey has been the subject of books, other podcasts and television documentaries that spawned new legal filings in his case.
The courts turned down all of his appeals, the most recent in 2019, when the Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
Things were quiet until this spring.
Behind the scenes, Suter, a public defender and director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, had been working with Mosby’s office with hopes of reducing Syed’s prison term in light of a new state law enabling those convicted of crimes before they turn 18 to ask the court to modify their punishment.
While examining the case, prosecutors agreed to request new DNA testing for items collected as evidence of Lee’s killing.
Phinn ordered the tests in March, but the results have so far been inconclusive, court documents show.
Tests for a few of the items are pending, and Mosby said after court the office was waiting on those results before deciding whether to drop Syed’s charges.