BALTIMORE — Adnan Syed, whose 2000 conviction in the death of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee later became the subject of the first season of the wildly popular “Serial” podcast, was ordered released from prison Monday by a Baltimore judge.
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.
Update 4:45 p.m. EDT Sept. 19: Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn sided Monday with prosecutors who had requested Syed’s conviction be vacated after the now-41-year-old had spent more than two decades in prison, The Associated Press reported.
Phinn, who ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense, ordered Syed released from prison and placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring.
Phinn also gave prosecutors 30 days to either seek a new trial or dismiss the case, according to the AP.
Original report: Baltimore prosecutors have asked a judge to set aside the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, whose 2000 conviction in the death of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee later became the subject of the first season of the wildly popular “Serial” podcast.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office filed a motion Wednesday that seeks a new trial for Syed.
“The motion filed today supports a new trial for Syed based on a nearly year-long investigation that revealed undisclosed and newly-developed information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone tower data,” Mosby said in a statement.
Syed, 41, of Baltimore, has served more than 23 years for Lee’s murder. Lee vanished Jan. 13, 1999, and her body was found nearly a month later in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. She had been strangled.
Syed, who was 17 years old at the time of the murder, has consistently maintained his innocence in the killing. He was arrested in February 1999 and tried as an adult on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment.
Jurors deliberated for just two hours on Feb. 25, 2000, before convicting Syed of the charges, for which he was sentenced to life plus 30 years.
Syed has fought for a new trial in the decades since, and his case has become a cause célèbre since being featured on “Serial” in 2014. HBO also ran a four-part documentary on the murder in 2019 called “The Case Against Adnan Syed.”
The case in favor of Adnan Syed
In Wednesday’s motion, Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman cites new evidence uncovered by the office’s Sentencing Review Unit and the defense, including evidence that was withheld from the defense about two potential alternate suspects who were never fully considered.
One of the alternate suspects had threatened to kill 18-year-old Lee.
“The suspect said that ‘he would make her disappear. He would kill her,’” the motion states.
Prosecutors have learned that one of the suspects, “without provocation or excuse,” was later convicted of attacking a woman in her car, Feldman wrote. The crime was similar to what authorities believe happened to Lee.
One of the suspects has also been convicted of “multiple instances of rape and sexual assault of compromised or vulnerable victims in a systematic, deliberate and premeditated way,” the prosecutor stated.
To protect the investigation, Feldman withheld the names of the alternate suspects and gave no indication of whether it was one or both suspects who were later convicted of violent crimes.
Prosecutors are asking that Syed be released on his own recognizance pending further investigation.
“We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case, with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in results of the first trial, would be unjust,” Mosby said.
Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue slammed trial prosecutors for withholding evidence regarding the alternate suspects.
“The fact that information about motives and threats of alternate suspects were kept from defense counsel for more than 20 years should shock the conscience,” Dartigue said in a statement. “Sadly, we at (the Office of the Public Defender) see Brady violations all the time, in cases across the state. This is a true example of how justice delayed is justice denied.”
A Brady violation occurs when the state withholds or suppresses evidence at trial that would be favorable to a defendant in terms of his guilt or his potential punishment.
Syed’s attorney, who heads the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project Clinic, filed a motion supporting the state’s motion to vacate his conviction.
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” defense attorney Erica Suter said. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”
The news of Mosby’s announcement also stirred up a lot of reaction on social media, including a response from the makers of “Serial.”
“This is big news,” they wrote in a tweet. “For the first time, Baltimore prosecutors are saying they don’t have confidence in Adnan Syed’s conviction and are asking for his release.”
Attorney and advocate Rabia Chaudry, a childhood friend of Syed’s, also spoke out.
“This is a major development in Adnan’s case, one that should lead to him finally getting justice,” O’Chaudry tweeted. “Taking it in, still. Deep breaths!”
The motion states that prosecutors are not proclaiming Syed innocent of the crime.
“However, for all the reasons set forth below, the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” the motion states.
Those reasons include the pending status of DNA testing of Lee’s clothing, which was ordered in March. Previous DNA testing done in 2018 had produced inconclusive results.
“The items being tested in 2022 were not previously tested in 2018, with the exception of the victim’s fingernails,” Feldman wrote.
Mosby’s motion addresses the two potential suspects, who are not mentioned by name.
“The two suspects may be involved individually or may be involved together,” the motion argues. “These suspects were known persons at the time of the investigation of the case and not properly ruled out, as set forth below.”
The state’s own reinvestigation of the murder has produced information suggesting both motive and propensity of the suspects to commit violent crimes. According to the motion, prosecutors have found documentation in the case file showing that multiple witnesses came forward with information about the same person having motive to kill Lee.
That person was not Syed.
The information was never turned over to the defense, which constitutes a Brady violation.
Another piece of information that was not turned over to the defense at trial was the accusation that one of the alternate suspects had previously been violent toward a woman he knew, and he threatened to kill her. Prosecutors knew of the allegations at the time of Syed’s trial.
“Given the circumstances of the victim’s death, this evidence would have been consequential to the defense’s theory of the case,” Feldman wrote.
In addition, state investigators have learned that when Lee’s gray Nissan Sentra was found in 1999, it had been abandoned in a grassy field directly behind a home.
The home belonged to a relative of one of the alternate suspects, the motion states.
The case against Adnan Syed
Syed and Lee were both students at Woodlawn High School when they became friends and later dated, though they hid their relationship from their conservative families, according to The New York Times. The month before she vanished, Lee broke off the on-again, off-again relationship and began dating a co-worker.
On the day she disappeared, Lee drove away from school in her Sentra. She was on her way to pick up her 6-year-old niece before going to work at LensCrafters, the Baltimore Sun reported in 1999. Lee never made it.
A couple of days after a passerby discovered her body, Baltimore police received an anonymous tip indicating Syed might be involved. One of his friends, Jay Wilds, told police that Syed had indicated before the murder that he wanted to kill Lee.
Wilds also told authorities he borrowed Syed’s car and cellphone around lunchtime on Jan. 13, with the agreement that he would pick Syed up when he called for a ride later that day.
“Thereafter … Syed asked Hae for a ride after school, and Hae agreed,” court documents state. “Shortly after school ended at 2:15 p.m., Syed drove Hae’s car to the Best Buy parking lot off Security Boulevard, where Syed, according to the state, strangled Hae sometime between 2:15 and 2:35 p.m.”
Prosecutors argued that Syed used a pay phone outside the electronics store to call Wilds, who met him outside Best Buy.
“When Wilds arrived, Syed showed Wilds Hae’s lifeless body in the trunk of the car,” the records state.
Wilds told authorities he followed Syed to the Interstate 70 Park and Ride, where they left the Sentra until later that night. He alleged that he then helped Syed bury Lee’s body in Leakin Park.
Prosecutors relied on cellphone tower records to corroborate Wilds’ story, which the Times reported changed several times over the course of the case.
In exchange for his testimony, Wilds was allowed to plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact. He was given a five-year suspended sentence and two years of probation.
In 2014, however, “Serial” revealed the existence of an alibi witness, Asia McClain, who in an affidavit wrote that she saw Syed at the Woodlawn Public Library the afternoon of Lee’s disappearance.
“I was waiting for a ride from my boyfriend (2:20 p.m.) when I spotted Mr. Syed and held a 15- (to) 20-minute conversation,” McClain wrote. “We talked about his girlfriend, and he seemed extremely calm and very caring. He explained to me that he just wanted her to be happy.”
Though her recollections corroborated Syed’s version of where he was that afternoon, McClain was never called to testify.
DNA testing was never done on physical evidence gathered by police in 1999, the Times reported. According to the newspaper, Syed later said that his trial attorney, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, never told him about the evidence.
Gutierrez, who was later disbarred by consent, told the Sun in 2001 that she had been struggling with multiple sclerosis, the Times said. She died in 2004.
Maryland’s intermediate appeals court vacated Syed’s conviction in March 2018, citing Gutierrez’s failure to contact McClain or call her as a witness at trial.
When the case went to the Maryland Court of Appeals that September, however, the court upheld his conviction. The court held that “given the totality of the evidence” against Syed, “there was not a significant or substantial possibility that the jury would have reached a different verdict had his trial counsel presented the alibi witness.”
Syed remained imprisoned Wednesday at Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
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