'Serial' podcast subject, Adnan Syed, released from prison, conviction tossed
A judge ordered that Syed’s conviction be vacated as she OK'd the release of the now-41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars
By Brian Witte
BALTIMORE — A Baltimore judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after overturning Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee — a case that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” a true-crime series that transfixed listeners and revolutionized the genre.
At the behest of prosecutors who had uncovered new evidence, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that Syed’s conviction be vacated as she approved the release of the now-41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars. There were gasps and applause in the crowded courtroom as the judge announced her decision.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed’s defense. She ordered Syed to be placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring. The judge also said the state must decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.
“All right Mr. Syed, you’re free to join your family,” Phinn said as the hearing ended.
Minutes later, Syed emerged from the courthouse and flashed a smile as he was shepherded to a waiting SUV through a sea of cameras and a cheering crowd of supporters.
Syed did not speak during the hearing, nor did he address the reporters outside afterward. But after the hearing, his lawyer Erica Suter described his reaction to the decision, saying: “He said he couldn’t believe it’s real.”
Sara Patel, a friend of Syed’s, said “we’re very happy and relieved that he’s finally free. We’ve just been on pins and needles this whole time.”
Syed has always maintained his innocence. His case captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of “Serial” focused on Lee’s killing and raised doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors had used, inspiring heated debates across dinner tables and water coolers about Syed’s innocence or guilt.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying a lengthy investigation conducted with the defense had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, in 2000.
“I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the correct person accountable,” assistant state’s attorney Becky Feldman told the judge as she described various details from the case that undermine the decades-old conviction, including other suspects, flawed cellphone data, unreliable witness testimony and a potentially biased detective.
After the hearing, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said investigators are waiting for the results of “DNA analysis” before determining whether to seek a new trial date or throw out the case against Syed and “certify his innocence.”
Syed was serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling 18-year-old Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park.
The investigation “revealed undisclosed and newly-developed information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone tower data,” Mosby’s office said in a news release last week. The other suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation, but weren’t properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense, said prosecutors, who declined to release information about the suspects, due to the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors said the failure to disclose the alternative suspects to defense attorneys amounted to what's known as a Brady violation.
But Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state during Syed's appeals, issued a statement Monday evening saying “among the other serious problems with the motion to vacate, the allegations related to Brady violations are incorrect.”
“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.”
Prosecutors said they weren’t asserting that Syed is innocent, but they lacked confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and recommended his release. The state’s attorney’s office had said if the motion were granted it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, vacating his convictions, while the case remained active.
Syed was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs Monday. Wearing a white shirt with a tie, he sat next to his attorney. His mother and other family representatives were in the room, as was Mosby.
In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Syed on the grounds that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.
But after a series of appeals, Maryland’s highest court in 2019 denied a new trial in a 4-3 opinion. The Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
The true-crime series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case and reporting her findings in almost real-time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularizing podcasts for a wide audience.
During the hearing, Hae Min Lee's brother Young Lee spoke to the court, saying he feels betrayed by prosecutors, since he thought the case was settled.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the ruling, Mosby expressed sympathy for Lee’s brother and said she understands why he feels betrayed.
“But I also understand the importance as the administer of the criminal justice system to ensure equality and justice and fairness. That is entitled to the defendant, as well,” she added.