- Made famous by the podcast ‘Serial’ and an HBO documentary, Syed has been behind bars since 2000 when he was found guilty of killing his high school classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
A Baltimore City Circuit Court has overturned the conviction of Adnan Syed, who has been behind bars since 2000 when he was found guilty of killing his high school classmate and ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. He has been set free and will remain in house detention till a decision is taken on a retrial. Syed’s murder trial inspired the podcast “Serial.”
In her ruling, Judge Melissa M. Phinn said the Sept. 19 ruling came after finding that “prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Syed at trial and discovered new evidence that could have affected the outcome of his case,” as reported by The New York Times.
Syed was dressed in all white and was smiling as he left the courthouse, as his supporters, family and friends cheered. He did not engage with the reporters who kept pressing him for a comment. Instead, his attorney Erica Suter told the media that her client told her that “he couldn’t believe it’s real.”
However, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby issued a statement right after the ruling that they are not yet declaring Syed innocent. “But we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice he is entitled to a new trial.” Prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to pursue a new trial, and they are waiting for DNA analysis. “But that mandate is separate and apart from the investigation into who killed Lee,” Mosby said according to CNN. Syed was ordered to serve home detention until then.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion in Baltimore City Circuit Court noting that “a nearly yearlong investigation, conducted with Syed’s lawyer, had uncovered information pointing to the possible involvement of two alternative suspects as well as key evidence that prosecutors might have failed to disclose to Syed’s lawyers in violation of their legal duty,” The New York Times report said. The investigation also identified “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” used to convict Syed, including cell phone tower data, the report added.
Syed Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and friend of Syed’s family who first brought his case to the attention of “This American Life,” which developed the podcast, took to social media to celebrate victory. “One last picture and I’m heading home,” she captioned a photo of her with Syed and his mother Shamim Syed.
Meanwhile, Lee’s family expressed concern that prosecutors had not given them adequate notice about the move to vacate the conviction. During the Sept. 19 hearing Steve Kelly, the family’s lawyer asked Judge Phinn to postpone a decision on the motion, The New York Times reported. After Judge Phinn rejected the request, Lee’s brother, Young Lee, joined the hearing on Zoom.
“This is not a podcast for me,” he said, addressing the court, per The Times report. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.” He said he felt “betrayed” and “blindsided” by the motion to vacate, and frustrated with the many turns in the case over the last two decades. “Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back,” Young Lee said, adding: “It’s killing me and killing my mother.”
Earlier in March, Syed’s legal team filed a joint motion with the Baltimore City State’s Attorney requesting that the court order modern DNA testing on his victim’s clothing, shoes and rape kit. They argued that the additional forensic testing Syed requested was merited in his case because of advances in genetic profiling.
The motion noted that “Lee’s clothing, shoes, and certain other evidence recovered from the scene have not been subject to DNA testing,” The New York Times reported. “(Syed) seeks to use the most advanced DNA testing methodologies that are currently available to analyze the biological evidence collected from the scene in an effort to exculpate him,” said the motion, according to The Times.
Adnan and Lee were seniors at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County in January 1999 and were said to be dating, when she disappeared. Lee’s body was found in a shallow grave in Leakin Park, at Baltimore’s western edge in 1999. Syed was arrested, and convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment in the death of Lee.
The hearing comes nearly eight years after the posthaste “Serial,” which “dug into his case, raising questions about the conviction and his legal representation,” a CNN report said. It debuted in 2014, featuring as its host Sarah Koenig, a former producer with the weekly public radio program “This American Life.” Its first season focused on whether Syed had received a fair trial. It was downloaded more than 100 million times and won a Peabody Award, turning the case into a topic of a national conversation. For many listeners, “Serial” raised doubts about Syed’s guilt. The podcast drew widespread attention to his case. There was an HBO docuseries as well, titled “The Case Against Adnan Syed.”
In February 2016, Syed’s lawyers had argued in post-conviction hearings that his original defense lawyer, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, failed to contact an alibi witness, Asia McClain, who said she saw Syed at a library at the time prosecutors say he strangled Lee in 1999. They also presented new evidence, including testimony from the alibi witness.
Syed was granted a retrial in June 2016 by Judge Martin P. Welch of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, but in 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals denied Syed a new trial in a 4-3 ruling, even though it agreed his trial lawyer’s work was lacking. The state high court said there was little chance the outcome would have been different had Gutierrez done what she should have.