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.
He smiled while descending the courthouse steps to raucous cheers, presumed innocent in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed’s murder conviction 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 released on a GPS monitor while the Baltimore State’s Attorney’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.
Prosecutors said a yearlong investigation conducted alongside Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, showed that authorities knew about at least one alternative suspect before his trial and withheld that information from his defense. Despite the developments, prosecutors said they are not prepared to declare Syed innocent.
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? 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’ve 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 .
Syed was stoic when Phinn ruled; his family members gasped, wept and embraced. The audience gallery erupted when the judge adjourned court.
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 tune 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 undue 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 enduring grievance for him and his relatives. He said 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 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,” Feldman said.
In the state’s motion to overturn his conviction, prosecutors wrote not that they believed Syed was innocent, but that they no longer had faith in the integrity of his conviction.
“It is in the interests of justice and fairness that these convictions be vacated and that the defendant, at a minimum, be afforded a new trial,” wrote Becky Feldman, chief of the State’s Attorney’s 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 over 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. According to their motion to vacate his conviction, the state has known since 1999 of two “alternative suspects” who may have killed Lee.
One of the suspects had threatened her, saying “he would make her disappear. He would kill her,” prosecutors wrote.
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 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 tested against him.
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Suter, Syed’s lawyer and director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
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 last in 2019, when the Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
Things were quiet until this spring.
Behind the scenes, Suter had been working with prosecutors in 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.
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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.
Lee’s family has maintained their belief Syed is guilty and have struggled with the publicity and support Syed receives.
“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,” the family said in a 2016 statement issued through the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
“Unlike those who learn about this case on the Internet,” the family said then, “we sat and watched every day of both trials — so many witnesses, so much evidence.”
The Lee family had not spoken publicly about the case since then until Monday.
This story will be updated.