Baltimore prosecutors drop charges against Adnan Syed, as last-ditch DNA tests exclude him

Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS

Adnan Syed, whose legal saga rose to international renown because of the hit podcast “Serial,” is free.

In an abrupt move Tuesday morning, Baltimore prosecutors dropped Syed’s criminal case stemming from the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee.

Syed’s conviction was overturned last month, but he remained charged with murder, kidnapping and robbery in Lee’s death while Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office considered whether to try him again or to dismiss the case.

Mosby said Tuesday afternoon that her decision to drop the charges against Syed was based on never-before-tested DNA from Lee’s shoes. The DNA test results, which Mosby’s office received Friday, showed DNA from four different people on the shoes. None of them are Syed, Mosby said.

“Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man,” Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, said in a statement. “The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit.”

Suter, who is also the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, participated alongside city prosecutors in a yearlong investigation. Together, the attorneys discovered two people they now consider alternative suspects in Lee’s death. Both suspects were known to the authorities all along, but at least one was not disclosed to Syed’s defense, they said.

Mosby, who leaves office in January and is under the cloud of a federal indictment, said Syed’s exoneration is not about her legacy but about achieving justice.

“As the administrator of the criminal justice system, it’s my duty to ensure that justice is not delayed, justice is never denied, but justice be done,” Mosby said. “Today, justice is done.”

Mosby on Tuesday reiterated her commitment to identifying and prosecuting Lee’s killer. Though she would not disclose any details about the ongoing investigation, Mosby said her office’s homicide division chief, Michael Dunty, is assigned to the case.

“With regard to Mr. Syed, the case is finished,” Mosby said.

The revelation of alternative suspects led Mosby’s office to move to vacate Syed’s conviction, with her prosecutors saying they’d lost faith in his guilty verdict. On Sept. 19, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn tossed out Syed’s conviction and set a 30-day deadline for Mosby’s office to decide what to do about Syed’s case.

Mosby said last month that her decision on Syed’s case hinged on pending DNA testing being conducted on evidence of Lee’s killing. Before the last round of DNA tests in the case, the results of which were discussed for the first time Tuesday, the analysis of genetic matter collected during the investigation of Lee’s death had been largely inconclusive.

At the request of Suter and Mosby’s prosecutors, several pieces of evidence were sent in March to a California lab for touch-DNA analysis, which seeks to test genetic matter left behind when someone comes into contact with something, and another type of test that aims to identify male profiles. Those analyses were not available around the time of her death.

Mosby’s prosecutors conceded in court papers last month that the tests hadn’t yielded much, but they were hoping to analyze a few more pieces of evidence. Mosby said Tuesday those items were pantyhose, a skirt and shoes. Police found the clothing on Lee’s body, which had been exposed to the elements, but investigators recovered the shoes from her car, according to court documents.

Only the black dress shoes, which were dusted for prints in 1999 but not analyzed further, had DNA on them, Mosby said. She declined to say whether the DNA samples from the shoes had been entered into law enforcement DNA databases.

One of the alternative suspects in Lee’s death has a history of sexual abuse of men and is incarcerated in a federal facility after a string of assaults in the Washington, D.C. area, meaning his DNA profile is available for comparison. It’s not clear if the DNA of the second suspect is available for comparison.

Mosby has said she would be prepared to formally certify Syed’s innocence, making him eligible to apply for wrongful conviction compensation from the state, if the DNA testing came back inconclusive or pointed to another suspect.

It’s up to Syed and Suter to spearhead the process of certifying his innocence, Mosby said Tuesday.

Suter said Tuesday she’d begin the process “as soon as possible.”

If Syed’s innocence is certified, he will be eligible for significant financial benefits from the state for being wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years. Under the Walter Lomax Act, Syed would receive roughly $2.2 million for the years he served in prison — compensation determined by a formula using Maryland’s median household income and the specific number of days Syed was incarcerated.

He also is entitled to free tuition and five years of health care and housing, according to state law.

In September, Phinn scheduled a court date for Oct. 19, exactly a month after she tossed Syed’s guilty finding. The hearing in reception court Tuesday morning was not docketed in online court records.

After Syed’s conviction was overturned, Lee’s family appealed, arguing Mosby’s office neglected to provide them adequate notice to attend the hearing. The family asked the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to pause the proceedings in Circuit Court while the court considered their appeal.

Just last week, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined Lee’s family in asking the state’s intermediate appellate court to put a hold on Syed’s case in the trial court.

After his office represented the state for Syed’s repeated appeals, Frosh has been critical of Mosby’s recent handling of the case. Frosh cast doubt on the basis that city prosecutors presented in support of overturning Syed’s conviction.

It’s unclear what Tuesday’s development means for the family’s appeal, although Mosby declared the appellate matter “moot” in her remarks.

“There’s no more appeal,” she said.

Frosh declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Attorney Steve Kelly, who represents the Lee family, criticized Mosby’s decision to dismiss the charges.

“By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the state’s attorney’s office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the state so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years,” Kelly said. “All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today’s actions robbed them of both.”

Mosby apologized to the Lee family for their loved one’s death, but dismissed the claim her office had neglected them, instead blaming Kelly.

“I think it’s unfortunate, that, you know, you have certain attorneys that try to exploit families,” Mosby said.

Lee, 18, was strangled to death and buried in a clandestine grave in Leakin Park. A man discovered her body about three weeks after she was last seen at the high school. At the time, police and prosecutors suspected Syed killed Lee because he was distraught over their breakup.

Syed stood trial twice, once in 1999 and again in 2000. The state’s case relied on witness testimony, cellphone call records and Syed’s own statements; little, if any, physical evidence connected him to the killing. A jury found him guilty of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment after the second trial. The judge sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison.

Arrested at 17, Syed had been behind bars for 23 years before being unshackled and walking out of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse last month. He was placed on GPS monitoring pending prosecutors’ decision on how to proceed with his case.

On Friday, Syed was elated about spending time with his family and friends sans an ankle monitor, Suter said. Looking forward, she said, he is committed to finishing his college degree and dreams of going to law school.

At Syed’s family home in Baltimore County, relatives felt relief Friday, his younger brother, Yusuf, told reporters. Yusuf Syed said the exoneration was especially meaningful to their mother.

“All these years, people have been saying her son’s a killer,” Yusuf Syed said. “Now, Adnan gets back all the respect he lost.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lea Skene contributed to this story.