Judge tosses Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, orders his prison release

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Adnan Syed, whose murder case captivated the nation after it was featured on the true-crime podcast “Serial,” was freed from prison Monday after 23 years, his conviction vacated — at least for now — by a judge who found deficiencies in how prosecutors had turned over evidence to defense attorneys decades ago.

Acting on a request from Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn ordered Syed unshackled in the courtroom and sent home while he waits to find out whether prosecutors will seek a new trial or drop their pursuit of him.

Now 42 years old, Syed emerged from the courthouse to a roaring crowd. Dressed in white with a blue tie, he smiled and waved before he was ushered into a car and driven away.

But his continued freedom is not guaranteed.

Phinn said prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether they will retry Syed in the killing of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Mosby said after the Monday decision that her office had not yet declared him innocent but that he was entitled to a new trial “in the interest of fairness and justice.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) — whose office has previously defended the handling of Syed’s case in court proceedings — blasted the Baltimore prosecutor for acting without consulting his office, and he called the allegations that prosecutors did not hand over evidence to Syed’s defense as they should have “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.”

While he awaits prosecutors’ next move, Syed will be under GPS supervision, Phinn said.

Syed has maintained his innocence since he was arrested for Lee’s murder in February 1999, when he was a 17-year-old in high school. Investigators at the time determined that she died by strangulation, and Syed was convicted of murder in 2000 and sentenced to life behind bars. He had long sought to overturn his conviction and get a new trial, but until recently, he had faced opposition from prosecutors.

Syed’s case was featured on the first season of “Serial” in 2014. Host Sarah Koenig detailed the events surrounding the death of Lee, raising questions about the handling of the investigation, the conduct of Syed’s defense and whether Syed might be innocent.

Over a decade after his conviction, Syed started to see some hope that he would get new legal proceedings.

In 2016, a circuit court vacated Syed’s conviction, citing the “ineffective assistance” of a former attorney who failed to investigate an alibi witness, and in March 2018, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling granting Syed a new trial. But in March 2019, Maryland’s highest court reinstated Syed’s murder conviction.

Then on Wednesday, the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office said in a motion in circuit court that it wanted the conviction tossed and Syed released. The office said its own nearly year-long investigation into the case, which was conducted with Syed’s defense, had found new evidence of potential suspects, as well as materials that should have been handed over to defense attorneys that were not.

Read the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction

The move drew widespread praise from supporters of Syed, who have long waged a public and legal campaign for his freedom.

C. Justin Brown, a former attorney for Syed who began representing him in 2009, released a statement that celebrated the ruling, but expressed concern at how long it took to arrive at this decision.

“It has now been revealed that prosecutors were aware of another viable suspect in Hae Min Lee’s murder, but that they sat on that information for more than 20 years,” Brown’s statement said. “While we do not know how this happened, nor whether it was intentional, we do know it is inexcusable.”

But that feeling was not universal.

Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, said at the hearing Monday that prosecutors’ motion to vacate the conviction left him feeling “betrayed.”

“That’s really tough for me to swallow, and especially for my mom,” he said.

Young Lee said he was “not against investigation or anything of that sort,” adding, “Knowing that there could be someone out there free for killing my sister — it’s tough.”

“I ask that you make the right decision,” he said to the judge.

After the hearing, Steven J. Kelly, an attorney for the family, said in a statement: “For more than 20 years, no one has wanted to know the truth about who killed Hae Min Lee more than her family. The Lee family is deeply disappointed that today’s hearing happened so quickly and that they were denied the reasonable notice that would have permitted them to have a meaningful voice in the proceedings.”

Mosby said DNA analysis will help determine whether Syed’s case will be dismissed or if prosecutors will seek a new trial. She said that she understands Lee’s brother’s feelings, but that Syed is entitled to fairness in the criminal justice system.

“You have some sort of resolution and believe that you have closure, and the case comes back up and it rips a whole new wound that you think has healed,” Mosby said. “I understand his frustration.”

Prosecutors have not disclosed the identities of the other potential suspects. But Becky Feldman, chief of the state’s attorney’s office sentencing review unit, on Monday described them as “credible, viable suspects.”

According to court filings, one had threatened to make Lee “disappear” and “kill her,” she said, and alleged one of them “engaged in multiple instances of rape and sexual assault.” One had relatives who lived near the area where Lee’s car was found.

Feldman said authorities at the time “improperly cleared” one suspect by relying on a polygraph test that was “not reliable.”

Prosecutors’ filing said the suspects “may be involved individually or may be involved together,” and made references to them throughout the motion as “one of the suspects,” without clarifying which person they were referring to.

The state’s attorney’s investigation also determined that a key witness in the case, Jay Wilds, was inconsistent in his accounts to police. For example, Wilds testified that he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body. But he gave two different accounts to authorities about where he saw the body and a third to the media, according to the motion. Wilds was an important character in the “Serial” podcast.

The investigation also found that the data prosecutors used to corroborate Wilds’s account could have also been misleading or inaccurate. Attorneys used data from incoming calls to place Syed at the site of Lee’s body, but the state’s attorney’s office said in the motion that type of cellphone data “would not be considered reliable information for location.”

“If that evidence had been disclosed, perhaps Adnan would not have missed his high school graduation or 23 years of birthdays, holidays, family gatherings, community events, everyday moments of joy,” said Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, outside the courthouse on Monday. “Perhaps the real killers would have been brought to justice.”

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