Professor Marc Howard told his students at Georgetown University to expect a special guest for their next lecture. Almost everyone came to class.

Into the criminal justice class on campus a few weeks ago walked Adnan Syed, the world’s most famous exoneree, as Howard puts it.

“There was almost like a gasp when he came into the room. Just a lot of excitement,” Howard said.

Known around the world from the hit podcast “Serial,” Syed told the college students of his two-decade legal fight to clear his name. That fight ended in dramatic fashion last September when Syed emerged a free man from Baltimore Circuit Court and walked into a cheering crowd.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The lecture wasn’t about celebrity gawking, Howard said, but to hear about the pursuit of freedom by Georgetown’s new employee.

“A lot of them were almost transfixed in a I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening way,” said Howard, director of the university’s Prison and Justice Initiative. “They heard it [”Serial”] as middle-schoolers.”

The university announced Wednesday it has hired Syed, 41, to work in its Prisons and Justice Initiative, a program that educates prisoners and trains them in business and law after their release.

Syed will help Georgetown students investigate wrongful convictions, exonerate men and women, and create documentary films about the cases — part of the “Making an Exoneree” class, according to the university. Syed had pursued a bachelor of arts degree through the Georgetown program while he was locked up at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. He has declined interviews requests from reporters.

“To go from prison to being a Georgetown student and then to actually be on campus on a pathway to work for Georgetown at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, it’s a full circle moment,” he said in an article by the university. “PJI changed my life. It changed my family’s life. Hopefully I can have the same kind of impact on others.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

While serving a life sentence, Syed always maintained that he was not responsible for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate, Hae Min Lee.

It was through the prison classes that Howard met Syed. Later, Howard invited Syed to dinner at his home where they discussed his future after prison. Howard just happened to have a job opening on staff.

“I didn’t have to pitch him; he didn’t have to ask. We had the same vision,” Howard said. “What he wanted to do was to continue the work that we have been doing. I thought, who better to exemplify the work and be a core member of our team than Adnan Syed?”

Through the Prison and Justice Initiative, the university and students have identified and helped bring about the release of four wrongfully convicted prisoners in the past five years, Howard said.

Syed’s release was celebrated by his supporters, attorneys and many who work to improve the criminal justice system. Doubts about his conviction had been examined in the podcast and documentary series, bringing much debate among those who believed him innocent or guilty.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Still, controversy has pursued the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office over the legal process by which it released Syed.

On Sept. 19, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted a request from the office to throw out Syed’s conviction. Prosecutors told the judge they had found new evidence that someone else may have killed the high school student.

During the hearing, attorney Steve Kelly stepped in and argued that Lee’s brother in California deserved more notice before prosecutors threw out the conviction. Kelly wanted to call his own witnesses and present information to the court. He filed an appeal and asked for a new hearing in which Lee’s brother would be able to hear more about the newly discovered evidence.

Before the appeals court could rule on Kelly’s request, prosecutors on Oct. 11 dropped the charges against Syed, citing the results of new DNA testing that excluded him as a contributor. Syed’s attorney requested the courts dismiss Kelly’s appeal, arguing the matter was now moot because the criminal case was dropped against Syed.

The appeals court, however, is allowing Kelly’s argument to proceed and has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Feb. 2.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Syed 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 Lee’s killing. Her body was discovered in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999.