A judge on Monday approved a motion by prosecutors to vacate the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the first season of the popular “Serial” podcast, who has maintained he is innocent in the 1999 slaying of his ex-girlfriend.
Baltimore prosecutors filed the motion last week asking for a new trial for Syed, who has been serving a life sentence after he was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment in connection to the killing of Hae Min Lee.
In explaining her decision to vacate, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn cited material in the state investigation that was not properly turned over to defense attorneys, as well as the existence of two suspects who may have been improperly cleared as part of the investigation.
Her ruling was met by cheers and tears in the courtroom. Syed – who attended the hearing wearing a white button-down shirt, a dark tie and a kufi cap – was not handcuffed, but his feet were. After the ruling, officials uncuffed his ankles, and soon after, Syed walked out of the courthouse to cheers and applause from supporters. He did not stop to speak to reporters as he got into a vehicle.
“We’re not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Monday following the judge’s ruling. “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 that they are trying to expedite to determine whether Adnan’s case is dismissed or the case is set for trial. But that mandate, Mosby said, is “separate and apart” from the investigation into who killed Lee.
In the meantime, Syed will wear an ankle monitor with tracking, according to Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.
Twenty-three years after he went to prison, “we now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known, that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair. Evidence was hidden from him, evidence that pointed to other people as the killers,” Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, said in a statement following the ruling.
The hearing comes nearly eight years after the “Serial” podcast dug into his case, raising questions about the conviction and his legal representation. In doing so, the podcast reached a huge audience and set off a true-crime podcasting boom as well as further examinations of the case, including the HBO docuseries, “The Case Against Adnan Syed.”
Prosecutors moved to vacate Syed’s conviction following a nearly yearlong investigation, they said in a news release last week. At the time, Mosby said prosecutors were “not asserting, at this time, that Mr. Syed is innocent” but that the state “lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction” and that Syed should get a new trial.
The reinvestigation of the case revealed evidence about the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed, including a person who said they would make Lee “disappear” and that “(h)e would kill her,” prosecutors said. Syed’s attorneys said he and his legal team were unaware that information existed until this year.
Defense attorneys praised the prosecution’s motion to vacate the conviction as righting a wrong.
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” Suter said in a statement last week.
Still, while Monday’s ruling was cause for celebration among Syed, his family and supporters, it was painful for the victim’s family.
“This isn’t a podcast for me. It’s real life,” Yung Lee, the brother of Hae Min Lee, said in court, adding he felt “betrayed” by the state.
“Whenever I think it’s over, it’s ended, it always comes back,” he said.
Lee’s family is considering filing an appeal but is “still in shock,” their attorney, Steve Kelly, said.
“The family is principally interested in justice,” he said outside court. “For the past 22 years the world and they have been told that Adnan Syed is the murderer of their daughter and sister Hae Min Lee. Now the court and prosecutors have a different view. The family seeks truth and a just process and result.”
What we know about the case
Adnan and Lee were seniors at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County in January 1999 when she disappeared. Her strangled body was discovered in a city forest three weeks later.
Syed and prosecutors in March filed a joint motion for post-conviction DNA testing, saying that since the crime occurred more than two decades ago, “DNA testing has changed and improved drastically.”
The March motion asked that the victim’s clothing be tested for touch DNA, which was not available at the time of trial. Items now being tested were not previously tested in 2018 – when the Baltimore City Police Lab tested various items for DNA – with the exception of the victim’s fingernail clippings, Mosby’s statement said.
Mosby said the motion to vacate was filed along with Sentencing Review Unit Chief Becky Feldman. Syed was a juvenile when convicted.
The alternative suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation “and were not properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense,” according to Mosby’s statement.
The state is not disclosing the names of the suspects but said that, according to the trial file, one of them said, “He would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her.”
The investigation also revealed that one suspect was convicted of attacking a woman in her vehicle, according to the statement. The second suspect was convicted of engaging in serial rape and sexual assault, the statement said.
Some of the information was available at the time of the trial, the statement said, and some came to light later. It is not clear when these assaults took place.
Lee’s car was located “directly behind the house of one of the suspect’s family members,” the statement said.
Attorneys for Syed brought the case to the attention of the sentencing review unit in April 2021.
Syed’s attorneys “identified significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence at trial,” Mosby’s statement said.
In the 2019 HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” an attorney for Syed said his client’s DNA was not found on any of the 12 samples retrieved from the victim’s body and car. That testing was not part of the official investigation by authorities. HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.
At trial, prosecutors relied on testimony from a friend, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed dig a hole for Lee’s body. To corroborate his account, prosecutors presented cell phone records and expert witness testimony to place Syed at the site where Lee was buried.
CNN’s Lauren Koenig reported from Baltimore, while Dakin Andone and Eric Levenson wrote this story in New York. CNN’s Amy Simonson, Ray Sanchez and Sonia Moghe contributed to this report.