After Baltimore prosecutors decided this week to drop all charges against Adnan Syed, the man who spent more than two decades behind bars for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a key question remains: Who will be held accountable for Lee’s death?
Syed, who was 17 at the time of her death, was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment, and sentenced to life in prison. Yet he has long maintained his innocence, and his story was featured in the popular “Serial” podcast, which raised questions about the conviction and his legal representation.
He was freed from prison last month after prosecutors without warning moved to vacate his murder conviction, saying the state “lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” but stopped short of declaring his innocence.
Based on the prosecution’s motion, a judge last month vacated the conviction and freed Syed, who walked out of the courthouse to cheers and applause from supporters.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Tuesday she instructed her office to dismiss the charges after results of advanced DNA testing of Lee’s shoes, skirt, pantyhose and jacket ruled out Syed.
“The items that we tested had never before been tested,” Mosby said. “We used advanced DNA to determine that it was not Adnan Syed.”
The decision to drop charges comes about 23 years after the disappearance of Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend and high school classmate. Her body was discovered in a city forest three weeks later. Authorities determined she had been strangled.
Two homicide detectives with the Baltimore Police Department are actively reinvestigating the case in partnership with Mosby’s office, which is providing all the information about the case, as well as the new developments which came to light over the past year, Mosby told CNN Friday.
In September, prosecutors announced how a nearly yearlong investigation revealed evidence about the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed, which prosecutors said was not properly turned over to defense attorneys.
The reinvestigation also raised questions about the reliability of cell phone data records, which were used to corroborate testimony of a witness who said he helped Syed dig a hole for the victim’s body.
“Adnan was not viewed as a suspect. He was arrested approximately six weeks after Lee’s disappearance,” said Douglas Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland who served as one of Syed’s first attorneys in the month after his arrest.
“New investigators will look at all the evidence with a fresh perspective, and undoubtedly will attempt to follow up on the information that was included in the Syed file,” Colbert added.
Mosby said the purpose of the reinvestigation is to bring Lee’s family “some sort of closure and to see real justice,” adding her office’s responsibility is to deliver it to the victim, which in this case, are many – Syed and his family, as well as Lee and hers.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Am I saying that he’s innocent?’ ” Mosby told CNN. “The one thing that I will say is after an extensive review of all of the evidence that we just talked about, we do not have credible evidence that Mr. Syed is a responsible party in this event.”
What is the focus of the reinvestigation?
The path to Syed’s release began in earnest last April, when attorneys for Syed brought the case to the attention of the Sentencing Review Unit. A recent piece of legislation allows people convicted of crimes as juveniles to ask for a modified sentence after they have served 20 years in prison, Mosby’s office said.
The state attorney highlighted the flaws in Syed’s case revealed in the review, including exculpatory evidence which was “sat on for decades,” about the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed, including a person who said they would make Lee “disappear” and “(h)e would kill her,” prosecutors previously said.
The new evidence also showed one suspect was convicted of attacking a woman in her vehicle, according to the statement. A second suspect was convicted of engaging in serial rape and sexual assault, the statement said.
Syed’s attorneys said he and his legal team were unaware the information existed until this year.
Moving forward, detectives will focus on looking for credible evidence to support any potential charges against any individual responsible for Lee’s death, Mosby said, adding she could not provide any additional details about the ongoing investigation.
David Jaros, professor of law at the University of Baltimore and faculty director at the Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said it’s still unknown whether the DNA evidence examined in the review suggested one of the two suspects was involved in the death of Lee.
The case is a “tragedy on both sides” which began with the initial prosecution of Syed, Jaros said.
“Not only did the defendant unjustly spend 23 years in jail, but it is very difficult and unlikely that the family will ever see the actual perpetrator brought to justice,” Jaros said, emphasizing it is difficult to investigate and bring to trial a case in which evidence is more than two decades old.
“It really does fundamentally challenge our notion about whether the criminal justice system is working in a way that we believe to be constitutional or that we’re comfortable with,” he said.
Does the victim’s family have any recourse?
Steve Kelly, the attorney for Lee’s family, said the family learned about the dismissal of charges through the media and criticized the attorney’s office for not notifying them beforehand.
“The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding,” Kelly said.
Young Lee, the victim’s brother, said he felt “betrayed” by the state in his impact statement on a Zoom call during the Baltimore courthouse hearing in September.
“This isn’t a podcast for me, it’s real life,” Lee said.
Mosby denied her office did not properly notify the Lee family, saying they were “the first ones to receive a copy of the motion to vacate even before we filed it.”
Jaros said the family’s argument will be difficult to prove because the judge’s decision was focused on the evidence not provided by the state to the defense, not a resentencing in which the court must consider a victim impact statement.
Mosby’s subsequent decision to dismiss the charges has further complicated the family’s options for recourse, he added.
In this case, Jaros said it is unlikely the family had a right to participate in the process, but they did still have a right to receive proper notice.
“The outstanding question is, did the state’s attorney give the family reasonable notice that this process was happening when they found out just a few days before? And if they were successfully to argue it was not reasonable notice, does that mean the remedy is to do this over when there is no input needed from the victims?” he added.
What comes next for Syed?
Syed is expected to follow a recertification process in order to be considered innocent in the case, Mosby said.
His legal team must file a request for compensation under Maryland’s Walter Lomax Act, which was signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2021 to improve existing law on compensation for wrongfully convicted people.
Mosby’s office will fully support Syed in any additional proceedings regarding his innocence, she said, and his case meets all the requirements to receive compensation.
The process under the Lomax Act requires the individual asking for compensation to demonstrate they were convicted and confined for a felony; the conviction was reversed or vacated; and the charges were dismissed, or the individual was acquitted at their retrial.
Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, praised the decision to drop charges as long overdue.
“While the proceedings are not completely over, this is an important step for Adnan, who has been on house arrest since the motion to vacate was first granted last month,” she said.
Syed had been wearing an ankle monitor with location tracking, but was taken off home monitoring on Tuesday, Suter said.
In the long term, Syed plans to continue his college education and has dreams of going to law school, she said. Today, though, he plans to spend time with his loved ones without being in home detention.
“The question we should all be asking is how many other Adnan Syeds are currently in prison or sentenced to life?” said Colbert, one of Syed’s first attorneys. “Unfortunately, we as a society do not dedicate sufficient funds to ensure that poor people have the effective assistance of a lawyer who can devote the time and resources to a person’s defense.”
CNN’s Eric Levenson, Brian Vitagliano, Aya Elamroussi and Sonia Moghe contributed to this report.