When the decision came, Adnan Syed bowed his head. There were gasps and cries in the Baltimore courtroom.
“At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed, please,” the judge ordered.
The gallery broke into applause. Then, the man made famous in the hit podcast “Serial” walked out the front doors of the courthouse — his first steps of freedom in two decades.
A judge overturned his conviction Monday in light of new evidence that someone else could have murdered his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee in 1999. Prosecutors and defense attorneys told the judge that evidence had been withheld from Syed’s lawyers over the years. They uncovered glaring missteps by police and trial attorneys, too.
Outside, a crowd of fans, friends and news reporters swarmed around Syed. He smiled as the security guards whisked him into an SUV — and he was gone. It was a stunning reversal in the murder case that captured interest around the world, gave rise to the genre of true crime podcasts and inspired a generation of at-home detectives.
“We are not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told the crowd. “But we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial.”
Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn released Syed while authorities reinvestigate the murder of Lee and decide whether to try him again. Mosby’s office has 30 days to schedule a new trial or drop the case.
“Twenty-three years later, we now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known, that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair,” said Syed’s attorney Erica Suter, the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
The hearing follows several whirlwind days in which prosecutors and defense attorneys notified the courts that they found handwritten notes by the former trial attorney that references two other suspects and threats made toward Lee. Suter and Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman spent the past year reinvestigating the case and came to believe these notes were not shared with Syed’s defense attorney.
They each filed a motion last week asking the courts to throw out Syed’s conviction, writing that they could no longer be sure he murdered Lee. The abrupt change of course shocked Lee’s brother in California. He retained a lawyer, who spoke up during the hearing and urged the judge to hold off her decision.
“Every day, when I think it’s over, whenever I think it’s over, or it’s ended, it’s always come back,” Young Lee told the judge by Zoom.
With his voice playing in the courtroom, Young Lee said he felt blindsided and betrayed that prosecutors sought to throw out Syed’s conviction. Still, he trusts the criminal justice system and the judge to make the right decision.
“This is not a podcast for me, this is real life,” he told the court.
Outside the courthouse, his attorney, Steve Kelly, said Lee’s family will consider whether they have any recourse.
“There are appeals to violations of victims’ rights that need to be explored,” Kelly said.
Similarly, the Office of the Maryland Attorney General took issue with the notion its attorneys withheld evidence, known as a “Brady violation,” during the years of appeals.
“Among the other serious problems with the motion to vacate, the allegations related to Brady violations are incorrect,” the office said in a news release issued after the hearing. “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. The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”
The office did not elaborate on other problems in the decision.
Lee’s body was found in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in February 1999. She had been strangled and buried in a shallow grave. She was 18.
During their reinvestigation, Feldman and Suter found messy, handwritten notes by the original prosecutor on the case that refers to two tips authorities received about credible, alternate suspects, including a serial rapist. According to the notes, one suspect said “he would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her.”
Lee’s car was found parked in a grassy lot behind the 300 block of Edgewood in West Baltimore. Feldman wrote that a family member of one suspect lived on the block.
She also found evidence that one suspect had attacked another woman in her car. And one of the suspects had a history of violence toward women.
Officials are withholding the names of the two suspects as they continue to investigate the murder.
Police initially ruled out one of them after a routine polygraph test, but prosecutors found errors in the procedure, such as allowing the suspect to return and finish the test after he claimed to be distracted. Feldman and Suter also found that outdated cellphone evidence was used to convict Syed — evidence that would not hold up in court today.
“To be clear, the State is not asserting at this time that Defendant is innocent,” Feldman wrote the judge last week. “However, for all the reasons set forth below, the State no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction. The State further contends that it is in the interests of justice and fairness that these convictions be vacated and that Defendant, at a minimum, be afforded a new trial at this time.”
It’s often difficult to retry murder cases when evidence becomes old, memories fade and witnesses move away or even die.
With the hearing set to begin, more than 100 people crowded into the big, ornate courtroom on the fifth floor, many of them fans of the podcast and family and friends of Syed. Sarah Koenig, the host and co-creator of “Serial,” sat in the front. In the gallery, some locked hands in anticipation.
Across the courtroom sat Syed’s fiercest advocate, Rabia Chaudry, a family friend and author of “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.”
Jurors had convicted Syed in February 2000 of murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. At trial, prosecutors presented him as a scorned lover and said he strangled Lee in the parking lot of the Best Buy off Security Boulevard in Baltimore County. Prosecutors asserted he called a friend, Jay Wilds, to pick him up and the two buried Lee in the park.
Wilds pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was sentenced to five years in prison, with all time suspended, plus two years’ probation. In exchange, he testified against Syed.
Syed, who maintained his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch granted him a new trial in 2016 after finding that his attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective counsel for failing to challenge the reliability of the cellphone evidence.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld that determination in 2018, but for different reasons. The court found Gutierrez did not investigate a potential alibi witness, Asia McClain, who would have testified that she saw Syed in the library at the time of the killing.
The state’s highest court, however, reversed the decision to award him a new trial and reinstated his conviction. Judges agreed that Gutierrez should have investigated the alibi witness, but held in a 4-3 opinion that the omission did not result in an unfair trial. They also found Syed waived his claim of ineffective counsel as it related to the cellphone evidence.
The HBO documentary, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” revealed prosecutors then offered him a deal: four more years behind bars if he pleaded guilty. Syed declined.
Four years later, he walked out of the courthouse amid cheers. In the crowd, two men hugged.
University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert and defense attorney Christopher Flohr represented Syed 22 years ago during his bail review hearing. The case has weighed on Flohr ever since.
“One of the biggest regrets of my career was that I could not do more for him,” Flohr said, wiping away tears.