With an unannounced, one-minute hearing Tuesday, Baltimore prosecutors abruptly dropped murder charges against Adnan Syed, the man whose case captured worldwide attention with the hit podcast “Serial.”
The move caught the family of the victim, Hae Min Lee, and officials with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office by surprise. They had asked an appeals court last week to step in and halt proceedings in the case.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby appeared publicly in the afternoon and explained the move. She said newly performed DNA tests on Lee’s shoes found a mixture of multiple people — none of them Syed. The test results arrived Friday, she said, and led prosecutors to return to court and formally dismiss the charges by entering “nolle prosequi” — a formal notice from a prosecutor that a criminal case will be ended.
Syed has been home on GPS monitoring since a Baltimore judge threw out his conviction last month. The Baltimore Banner reviewed video of Tuesday’s hearing.
“Ms. Feldman, did you have something you wanted to call on my docket this morning?” Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn asked.
Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, called the case against Syed.
“What’s the state doing today with this case?”
“Thank you, your honor. The state will be entering a nolle pros.”
“All right. Nolle pros is entered. Thank you. Have a good day,” the judge said.
It was an abrupt and quiet ending to the case that has been explored in podcasts, books and a popular HBO documentary series. Listeners around the world have pored over the evidence and debated Syed’s guilt or innocence. Prosecutors dismissed the case before an appeals court could step in.
“There is no more appeal,” Mosby said during the news conference. “It’s moot.”
Her move brought sharp words from Steve Kelly, the attorney for Lee’s family. Kelly notified the courts that he intended to appeal the judge’s decision that set Syed free.
Tuesday’s hearing was not listed on the public docket; Syed was not scheduled to appear in court until next week.
“The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding,” Kelly said in a statement. “By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the State’s Attorney’s Office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the State so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years. All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today’s actions robbed them of both.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment. Attorney General Brian Frosh has said he’s seen nothing from city prosecutors to change his opinion of Syed’s guilt.
Mosby and Frosh have been at odds over the case. She accused his office of withholding exculpatory evidence and causing Syed to spend two decades behind bars on a faulty conviction.
Last month, Mosby’s office asked the courts to release Syed on grounds of newly discovered evidence of two alternate suspects in Lee’s killing. She declined to say whether the DNA on the shoes matched them. Baltimore police and prosecutors continue to investigate.
Syed’s attorney Erica Suter said she will work with city prosecutors to have the courts formally declare him innocent. Authorities removed him from GPS monitoring.
“Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man,” said Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit.”
Suter said her client needs time to process and requests privacy. Syed was not available for interviews. He wants to earn his bachelor’s degree and attend law school, Suter said.
Syed’s friend Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and author of “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial,” celebrated the news on Twitter.
“For decades now my prayer and the prayers of people who love Adnan have been not only that he is released from prison, but that he returns home with his dignity and reputation restored, his record cleared, and the killer of Hae Min Lee brought to justice. We prayed for all these things and God has granted nearly every prayer. .... My final prayer is that the killer is soon arrested and I believe with my entire heart this will happen.
“Finally I want to say to Adnan that I love you little brother, and I can’t wait for the world to get to know you. You deserve everything good in this life and the next,” Chaudry wrote online.
In an interview with WJZ-TV, Yusuf Syed, the brother of Adnan, said the family is in shock.
“We’re so happy and excited that this nightmare’s over,” he said. “We can finally move on with our life.”
Syed, 41, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing of Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. Her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore City on Feb. 9, 1999. He has always maintained his innocence.
Over the years, police and prosecutors conducted DNA testing of evidence in the case.
In 2018, the Baltimore police lab tested several items from the crime scene, including fingernail clippings, blood samples, swabs from a nearby bottle and bottle cap, a condom wrapper and wire found in the park. They found either no DNA or inconclusive results, according to court records.
In March, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to new testing by an independent lab for “touch DNA.” This technology detects trace amounts of DNA and was not available when Lee was killed.
An initial round of tests produced no results. Officials proceeded with additional testing, including of some items never before tested, such as Lee’s skirt, pantyhose, shoes and jacket.
With the tests pending, a Baltimore circuit judge granted a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction after the state alleged that Frosh’s office withheld exculpatory evidence about two possible alternative suspects.
The judge ordered Syed to be released from prison and placed him on home detention. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office had 30 days to schedule a new trial or drop the case.
Kelly, the attorney for Lee’s family, tried to intervene. He notified the courts that he intended to appeal the judge’s order. Young Lee, her brother in California, deserved more notice of the hearing and a chance to participate, Kelly said.
He requested the Maryland Court of Special Appeals step in and stop any proceedings in the case. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office joined in his request.
Mosby said her office received the results of the touch DNA on Friday, which showed a mixture of DNA from four people on her shoes. They declined to say more about those four people, but said none were Syed.
Before the appeals court took action, Mosby’s office dropped the case.
Reporter Cadence Quaranta contributed to this article.