UPDATE: Adnan Syed could be released from prison today. Get live updates from today’s hearing.
Adnan Syed, whose conviction and life sentence in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee was chronicled on the popular podcast “Serial,” could be released from prison as soon as Monday afternoon.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn has scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. Monday to decide whether to grant a motion from prosecutors to vacate his conviction and release him on his own recognizance while authorities continue to investigate two other suspects.
The “Serial” podcast became an international phenomenon and numerous other true crime examinations of the case against Syed followed. The HBO documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and the podcast “Undisclosed” have explored whether Syed killed Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. That’s in addition to the book “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.”
Here’s what you need to know to get caught up.
How did we get here?
Syed, now 41, was found guilty at a second trial in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life plus 30 years. Prosecutors alleged that he strangled Lee, 18, and then buried her in a shallow grave at Leakin Park in Baltimore with the help of a friend, Jay Wilds.
Lee’s body was discovered on Feb. 9, 1999.
At the time, Syed was 17. He has maintained his innocence.
Wilds pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was sentenced to five years in prison — with all time suspended — plus two years’ probation. He testified at trial against Syed.
In 2016, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch granted a new trial to Syed on the basis that his attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective counsel for failing to challenge the reliability of cellphone evidence.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld that determination on the grounds that Gutierrez was ineffective for failing to investigate a potential alibi witness, Asia McClain. She would have testified that she saw Syed at the library at the time of the killing.
But the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, overturned the award of a new trial and reinstated Syed’s conviction in 2019.
Following an almost one-year investigation with Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman filed a motion on Wednesday to throw out his conviction and release him from prison while the inquiry proceeds.
Suter is the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“To be clear, the State is not asserting at this time that Defendant is innocent,” Feldman wrote. “However, for all the reasons set forth below, the State no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.”
What has the new investigation uncovered?
In her 22-page motion, Feldman wrote that both sides have “developed evidence regarding the possible involvement of two alternate suspects.”
Authorities withheld their names from court documents.
For instance, Feldman wrote, the state found a document in its file containing information about how one of the suspects had threatened to kill Lee. That’s in addition to a separate record that contained details one could construe as that person having a motive to hurt her, she noted.
The defense was not given those documents containing the exculpatory information.
One of the suspects, Feldman wrote, attacked a woman while she was in her car. And one, she said, “engaged in multiple instances of rape and sexual assault of compromised or vulnerable victims in a systematic, deliberate and premeditated way.”
Feldman wrote that the violations of discovery rules alone were enough for a judge to grant a new trial.
The information about the alternative suspects was of “great concern,” Feldman wrote.
Prosecutors, she said, also reviewed the evidence presented at trial, developed additional concerns and determined that they had lost faith in the integrity of the conviction.
What could happen at the hearing?
Baltimore prosecutors and Syed’s defense attorney teamed up to file the motion to vacate his conviction. During the hearing, they are expected to present the judge with their reasons for why his conviction should be tossed out.
They are not saying he’s innocent. At least, not yet.
In her motion, Feldman, the chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, wrote:
“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.”
They are asking for the judge to release Syed while they continue to investigate the killing and decide whether to try him again. Their request is partly based on what’s known as a “Brady violation,” an instance when prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that would be helpful to the defense.
Syed could be released as soon as Monday afternoon.
Who is the Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn?
The decision will rest with Phinn, the judge.
Of all the Baltimore Circuit Court judges, Phinn has a reputation as someone with little patience for attorneys who show up unprepared, waste the time of the court and don’t have their cases in order. She’s expected to bring closer scrutiny to the request to throw out Syed’s conviction.
“Typically, when the prosecution makes a motion to vacate or dismiss, that’s given a great deal of weight by the deciding judge,” said Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
Colbert volunteered to represent Syed during an initial bail review hearing before the family hired a defense lawyer.
“It’s ultimately the judge’s decision, but the prosecution input counts as a very important factor,” he said.
Professor David Jaros of the University of Baltimore School of Law said it’s “not a slam dunk” that the judge will rubber-stamp the request, even if the prosecution and defense are in agreement.
He noted prosecutors don’t take requests to overturn murder convictions lightly.
“It’s reasonable to expect there’s good reason behind that [request], and it’s likely a judge will see that, too,” Jaros said. “A judge will certainly have questions and want to know how this Brady violation might have happened and why it wasn’t identified long ago.”
The former prosecutor in the case, Kevin Urick, did not return messages. The Office of the Maryland Attorney General represented the state and argued against Syed’s appeals.
“We believe that the Office of Attorney General met all of its obligations in this case,” a spokeswoman said.
Jaros said the prosecutors and defense attorneys are somewhat handicapped because their investigation is continuing and they would not want to disclose the identity of the alternate suspects in open court.
“That makes it particularly tricky,” he added.
How can I watch the hearing?
You can’t. At least, not from home.
Maryland law prohibits cameras in the courtroom and hearings may not be streamed live.
The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the Baltimore Circuit Court. The courtroom is open to the public. Electronic devices are not permitted in the courtroom and cellphones are required to be turned off.
It’s not immediately known if the court is taking any additional steps to accommodate the high interest in the case.
Syed is expected to be brought to the hearing from prison. Sometimes scheduling challenges between the prisons and courts mean defendants are not available and attorneys can decide whether to proceed with the defendant joining via Zoom.
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