UPDATE: Adnan Syed could be released from prison today. Get live updates from today’s hearing.
Citing new evidence of alternative suspects, Baltimore prosecutors are asking a judge to throw out the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence in the killing of his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School in a case that received international attention in hit podcasts and documentaries.
In a motion filed on Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman wrote that prosecutors spent the past year investigating the case alongside Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, and discovered evidence of two alternative suspects. Prosecutors, she said, also came to question some of evidence presented at trial and found instances in which authorities withheld information from his defense.
“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. 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.”
Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, applauded the decision.
[ UPDATE: As court considers freeing Adnan Syed, Baltimore Police to reinvestigate Hae Min Lee’s killing ]
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” Suter said in a statement. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”
Feldman wrote that prosecutors continue to investigate and their findings will determine whether they drop the case altogether or proceed with a new trial. In the meantime, they’re asking the court to release Syed from the Patuxent Institution.
Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said the evidence withheld from Syed’s attorneys for more than 20 years should “shock the conscience.”
In a statement, Dartigue said her office sees instances all the time in which prosecutors fail to provide exculpatory evidence. She described the case as a “true example of how justice delayed is justice denied.”
Syed, now 41, was found guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment in the killing of Hae Min Lee, and later sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999. She was 17.
The state theorized that Syed was a scorned lover and strangled Lee in the parking lot of the Best Buy on Belmont Avenue, just off Security Boulevard, in Baltimore County. Prosecutors asserted that he then called his friend, Jay Wilds, to pick him up, and that the two later buried Lee in a shallow grave in Leakin Park.
Wilds pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was later sentenced to five years in prison, with all time suspended, plus two years’ probation. He testified against Syed at trial.
Syed became the subject of the popular podcast “Serial” in 2014. HBO released a four-part documentary series about the case called “The Case Against Adnan Syed” in 2019.
Sarah Koenig, the host and co-creator of “Serial,” said she had not heard about the development until a friend mentioned it in a text message.
“I was shocked,” said Koenig, who added that she had a chance to quickly read through the motion. “I still feel like I’m getting my head around it.”
Koenig described the case as flawed and noted that a man was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. At the same time, she said, she could not help but think of Lee’s family.
Syed’s friend, Rabia Chaudry, an attorney, advocate and author of “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial,” served as executive producer of the HBO documentary series.
On Instagram Live, Chaudry described the development in the case as a huge deal.
“You assume you’re going to fight the state until the end,” Chaudry said. “So not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the state would be fighting for us in many ways, fighting for justice for Hae in this case.”
One of Syed’s former attorneys, Justin Brown, also celebrated the news on Twitter. “I couldn’t be happier for my former client!” he wrote, appending the hashtag #freeadnan to his tweet.
The groundswell of attention to the case led authorities to conduct DNA testing of the evidence in 2018 and 2022. Those tests brought inconclusive results or no useful findings, Feldman wrote the court. Instead, her motion centers on the discovery of the alternative suspects as well as the reliability of the evidence presented at trial.
“New information was learned about these individuals that that suggests motive and/or propensity to commit this crime,” she wrote. “However, in order to protect the integrity of the on-going investigation, the names of the suspects, which suspects in particular, and the specific details of the information obtained will not be provided at this time.”
Prosecutors found a document in the case file that revealed another person had threatened to kill Lee.
“The suspect said that ‘he would make her [Ms. Lee] disappear. He would kill her,’” Feldman wrote.
Prosecutors found no evidence that the state disclosed that threat to Syed’s attorneys and that such disclosure should have been made.
In addition, Lee’s car was found parked in a grassy lot behind the 300 block of Edgewood Avenue in West Baltimore. One of the suspect’s family members lived on the block at the time of the killing.
Similarly, prosecutors found evidence that one of the new suspects had attacked another woman in her car. Also, one of the suspects, Feldman wrote, had a history of violence toward women.
Police initially ruled out one of the suspects after a routine polygraph test. But, Feldman wrote, police did not follow and even allowed the suspect to come back because the person claimed to be distracted during the initial test.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch granted Syed a new trial in 2016 on the grounds that his trial attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to challenge the reliability of cellphone tower evidence introduced at trial. She agreed to be disbarred in 2001.
In her motion, Feldman noted that the state relied on billing information that contained a disclaimer that locations from incoming calls “would not be considered reliable information for location.”
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals in 2018 upheld the award of a new trial on the grounds that Gutierrez failed to investigate a potential alibi witness, Asia McClain, who stated that she saw Syed at the library during the time of the killing.
But the state’s highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, reversed the decision to grant a new trial to Syed in 2019 in a 4-3 opinion and reinstated his conviction.
In a response to the state motion, Suter wrote that her client was unaware of all the new evidence until 2022.
She said the concealment of exculpatory evidence is the most common cause of wrongful convictions. In Baltimore, she said, 80% of reported exonerations involve the state withholding evidence.
She characterized the case against her client being based on “the evolving narrative of an incentivized, cooperating nineteen-year-old co-defendant, propped up by inaccurate and misleading cell phone location data.”
”That was so in 1999, when Mr. Syed was a seventeen-year-old-child,” Suter wrote. “It remains so today.”