A Baltimore judge on Monday, Sept. 19, 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 on the popular podcast “Serial,” a true-crime series. that captivated listeners and revolutionized the genre.
At the behest of prosecutors who uncovered new evidence, District Court Judge Melissa Finn ordered Syed’s conviction overturned as she approved the release of the now 41-year-old man, who has spent more than two decades behind bars. When the judge announced her decision, there were gasps and applause in the packed courtroom.
Finn ruled that the state breached its legal obligations to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed’s defense. She ordered Syed placed under house arrest with GPS location monitoring. The judge also said the state has 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case.
“Okay, Mr. Syed, you can join your family,” Finn said as the hearing ended.
Minutes later, Syed emerged from the courthouse and smiled as he was led to a waiting SUV through a sea of cameras and a cheering crowd of supporters.
Syed did not speak during the hearing or address reporters afterward. But after the hearing, his lawyer Erica Suter described his reaction to the decision, saying: “He said he couldn’t believe it was real.”
Sarah Patel, a friend of Syed, said: “We are so happy and relieved that he is finally free. All this time we were just on our heels.”
Syed has always maintained his innocence. His case captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of “Seriously” focused on Lee’s murder and cast doubt on some of the evidence used by prosecutors, sparking heated debates at dinner tables and water coolers over Syed’s innocence and guilt.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying a lengthy investigation conducted jointly with the defense turned up new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend.
“I understand how difficult it is, but we have to make sure we bring the right person to justice,” Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman told the judge, describing the various details of the case that undermine decades of convictions, including other suspects, erroneous data cell phone, unreliable witness testimony and a potentially biased detective.
After the hearing, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said investigators are awaiting the results of “DNA analysis” before deciding whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case against Syed and “affirm his innocence.”
Syed was serving a life sentence after being found guilty of strangling 18-year-old Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park.
The investigation “revealed undisclosed and new information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cell tower data,” Mosby said in a news release last week. The other suspects were known at the time of the initial investigation but were not properly ruled out or disclosed to the defense, said prosecutors, who declined to release suspect information because of the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors said the lawyer’s failure to disclose alternative suspects constituted what is known as a Brady violation.
But Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state in Syed’s appeals, issued a statement Monday night saying that “among other serious problems with the motion for release, the Brady violation allegations are false.” .
“Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone in her office bothered to consult with the Assistant State’s Attorney who handled the case or anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations,” Frosh said. “The materials of this case have been provided to the defense several times.”
Prosecutors said they did not claim Sayed was innocent, but they lacked confidence in the “integrity of the verdict” and recommended his release. The state attorney’s office said that if the motion is granted, it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, vacating his convictions while the case remained active.
On Monday, Syed was brought into a packed courtroom in handcuffs. Dressed in a white shirt and tie, he sat next to his lawyer. His mother and other family members 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, failed to 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 decision. The appeals court agreed with the lower court that Saeed’s legal counsel failed to investigate the witness’s alibi, but disagreed that this failure prejudiced the case. The court said Syed had waived his ineffective counsel claim.
The US 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 dug into the Syed case for more than a year and reported her findings in near-real time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and revolutionized the popularization of podcasts for a wider audience.
During the hearing, Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, spoke in court, saying he felt betrayed by prosecutors because he believed the case was settled.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict, Mosby offered her condolences to Lee’s brother and said she understood why he felt betrayed.
“But I also understand the importance of ensuring equity, fairness and justice as an administrator of the criminal justice system. The defendant also has the right,” she added.
___ Associated Press writers Mike Kunzelman and Sarah Broomfield in Silver Spring, Md., contributed to this report.