Some two decades ago, a Baltimore trial prosecutor conducted an interview about the murder of a high school girl and scribbled some notes on a yellow legal pad.
Today, that hurried handwriting has come to the center of debate over the decision to release from prison Adnan Syed of the hit podcast “Serial.”
Baltimore prosecutors cited the note as newly discovered evidence when they asked a judge in September to toss out Syed’s murder conviction. They told the judge the note reveals an alternate suspect in the murder of Hae Min Lee.
But documents obtained by The Baltimore Banner show the trial prosecutor maintains that he wasn’t referring to an alternate suspect — but Syed himself. The documents raise questions about how evidence has been presented during the reversal of Syed’s case.
Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. Millions of people listened to an examination of the case in the groundbreaking podcast “Serial.”
In the weeks since Syed walked free into a cheering crowd, the note has come under scrutiny and sparked debate about whether prosecutors rushed to judgment or misread the trial prosecutor’s scribbled handwriting.
State and city officials declined requests to release the note. The Banner obtained a copy as well as a corresponding transcript from its author, Kevin Urick. He prosecuted Syed more than 20 years ago and he’s been accused of withholding the note from Syed’s defense attorneys.
Urick confirmed the authenticity of the note and his transcript, but declined to comment.
“He told her that he would make her disappear; he would kill her,” Urick scribbled on the legal pad years ago.
Prosecutors quoted that sentence when they asked the judge to overturn Syed’s conviction. In their reading of the note, “he” refers to another man — an acquaintance of Syed who’s also named on the page. Prosecutors argued this shows someone else had threatened Lee and that man should have been considered an alternate suspect. Under trial rules, such a document must be shared with defense attorneys.
“The information about the threat and motive to harm could have provided a basis for the defense to present and/or bolster a plausible alternate theory of the case at trial,” prosecutors wrote the judge in September. “This information was not contained in the defense’s file, nor was it included in any of the various discovery pleadings the State produced each time it disclosed new information to the defense.”
They argued Syed’s trial was therefore unfair. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted their request and threw out his conviction.
In his transcript, however, Urick writes that his use of the pronoun “he” was not a reference to the other man as prosecutors claim. In the preceding sentence, Urick writes that this other man felt Lee was creating problems for Syed.
“’He’ refers back to and replaces the proper noun ‘Adnan,’ its antecedent,” Urick writes in a footnote on the transcript.
Urick was not asked about the meaning of his words before prosecutors came to their conclusion, according to court filings. The public revelation of the documents leaves dueling explanations for the crucial note.
Prosecutors say “he” refers to an alternate suspect; Urick says “he” refers to Syed.
The note “is subject to multiple interpretations,” Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote the court last week. She said the motion to throw out Syed’s conviction “selectively quoted” the note, the rest of which suggested that the caller did not take the threat seriously and contained several other statements consistent with the evidence introduced against Syed at trial.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said prosecutors stand by their decision to free Syed and explained they did not only rely on Urick’s note. The spokeswoman called Urick’s transcript an attempt “to save face” and questioned his credibility.
“We do not believe Urick’s recent self-serving attribution to Mr. Syed,” Emily Witty wrote in an email.
“We are well aware of the person and the circumstances surrounding the call that was made identifying an alternative suspect in this case, in which additional documentation about the suspect was also provided,” she said. “Urick’s revisionist history is not only convenient but self-serving, which is why this alleged statement, which should have also been turned over to defense as a ‘statement of the defendant,’ was never used at any of Mr. Syed’s previous trials.”
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has blamed Urick and the Office of the Maryland Attorney General for withholding the note and causing an unfair trial for Syed. A year-long investigation by her office and Syed’s attorney Erica Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, came to a head in September when they asked the judge to throw out Syed’s conviction. They cited the note as well as additional information of a second alternate suspect, a man who had a history of sexual assaults.
The Banner is not identifying the alternate suspects. Neither man has been charged in the case and authorities continue to investigate them.
In the past, prosecutors described one of them — the man named in Urick’s note — as a teacher and mentor at the mosque where Syed attended. He testified that he “counseled the defendant on the impropriety of his relationship with the victim in this case” and bought him a cell phone two days before the killing, according to court documents.
Syed’s attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, represented the man when he appeared and testified before a grand jury in the case.
In 2017, the man, a former dentist, was sentenced in D.C. court to 16 1/2 years in prison for sexually assaulting five male patients and one employee, as well as inappropriately touching another employee. The crimes happened between 2010 and 2014. He would give the patients nitrous oxide then sexually assault them while they were sedated, according to prosecutors. He worked as a dentist at Universal Smiles DC.
He later pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in D.C. to a $5 million health care fraud scheme.
Prosecutors dismissed all criminal charges against Syed about three weeks after the judge overturned his conviction and released him on house arrest. In dismissing the charges, they cited a new round of testing that found no trace of Syed’s DNA on Lee’s shoes and other items from the crime scene.
Lee’s family has objected to prosecutor’s handling of the case, saying they deserved more notice before prosecutors decided to overturn the conviction and dismiss the charges. They have asked the courts for a chance to participate in a hearing on the new evidence. The family’s attorney says they do not want to interfere with Syed’s release from prison.
Meanwhile, litigation continues in the case with a battery of court filings from defense attorneys, the attorney general’s office, even the judge who presided over Syed’s trial. Officials continue to argue over whether the Lee family appeal should continue.