A Baltimore judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after overturning his conviction for the 1999 murder of 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 and approved the release of the 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 defence. She ordered him released from custody and placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring. She also ordered the state to 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 small smile as he was shepherded to a waiting SUV through a sea of cameras and a cheering crowd of supporters.
Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, received widespread attention 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 countless dinner table debates about Syed’s innocence or guilt.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying that a lengthy investigation conducted with the defence had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend.
“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 cellphone tower data,” Mosby’s office said in a news release last week. The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation but weren’t properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defence, said prosecutors, who declined to release information about the suspects due to the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors said they weren’t asserting that Syed is innocent, but they lacked confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and recommended he be released on his own recognizance or bail. 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.
Supreme Court declined review of case in 2019
Syed was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs on Monday. Wearing a white shirt with a tie, he sat next to his lawyer. His mother and other family representatives were in the room, as was Mosby.
“Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit,” Mosby told a news conference after the hearing.
In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Syed on the grounds that his lawyer, 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 podcast 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.
A tweet from the official Serial Twitter account said that Koenig was at the courthouse when Syed was released on Monday and that a new episode of the podcast would be available on Tuesday morning.
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 said.