Just three months out from his release following a 30-year prison sentence, Willie Hamilton stood outside the Baltimore courthouse on Monday afternoon.
Word had spread that his longtime friend, Adnan Syed, was about to be released. Hamilton wanted a front-row seat.
Syed, whose case is chronicled in the popular “Serial” podcast and the HBO documentary, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” has evolved into a household name among followers of the true crime genre. Fans from near and far crowded the courthouse Monday in anticipation of his walking free after more than two decades.
With Syed’s sentence vacated, his shackles came off Monday to applause and tears of joy. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has 30 days to decide whether to set a new trial.
Hamilton said his friendship with Syed stretches nearly as far back as the man’s conviction. They met at the former Maryland House of Correction-Annex, now known as the Jessup Correctional Institution, in 2000.
He said he first learned of the possibility that his friend’s decades-old conviction could be thrown out about four days earlier, when Syed called him from prison. Hamilton said he asked Syed how he felt, and Syed responded that he was happy for his parents.
“He didn’t say, ‘I’m happy for myself ... I’m going to be free and enjoy this,’ stuff like that, like so many of us do when we get out of prison,” Hamilton said. “He said, ‘I’m happy for my parents.’”
Hamilton was one of a small group of men gathered across the street from the courthouse who knew Syed from shared time in prison, and not from the hit podcast or documentary. The group included Kenneth McPherson, whose conviction was also cleared by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office in 2019.
McPherson said Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit saved his life, and called on the presumptive next Baltimore state’s attorney, Ivan J. Bates, to maintain it.
“There’s so many more [wrongfully convicted] people in there,” McPherson said, referring to Maryland prisons.
When Hamilton first met Syed in prison, he said he viewed himself as an older brother to Syed, who he found fascinating because he came from such a different background. Hamilton grew up in Southeast Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood with high concentrations of violent crime, and was only a few years older than Syed when they met.
“I grew to love him,” Hamilton said, “As a friend, as a brother.”
It was Syed’s sincerity and “innocence” that Hamilton said he was drawn to, saying Syed remained untouched by the environmental horrors he had grown accustomed to growing up in a violent neighborhood.
“It was refreshing,” Hamilton said. “I thought that I was bestowing wisdom on him. He was doing it upon me. And he helped me change. He helped me grow.”
Also waiting for Syed outside the courthouse was Gerald “Soldier” Dent, who said he served time with him in a Maryland correctional facility in Western Maryland. Dent, released after four decades in prison, said Syed often talked about returning home someday — something common among those who maintain innocence while locked away, he said.
“I know he is [innocent] — the evidence say he is,” Dent said. “I’m glad for him.”
Dent said he felt a connection to Syed, given his own experience with the justice system. Online court records show that Dent, 75, was handed a life sentence in December 1974 for first-degree murder and had the sentence changed in September 2015. He served 40 years and eight months.
In 2015, Dent was granted a hearing and became one of more than 130 prisoners serving life sentences for violent crimes to be freed on probation, which he served for three years. The state’s highest court in 2012 ruled that people convicted in Maryland before 1981 had been denied due process due to an outdated jury charge and were entitled to a new trial. An appeal filed in Dent’s case was dismissed in October 2015, online court records show.
Dent said he looks forward to speaking with Syed, though he’s not sure when he will get the chance. He said he was pleased to see new evidence surface, though he never doubted Syed’s innocence. He said he frets over the many others he served time with who were wrongly convicted, only to languish behind bars.
Asked what he plans to say to his friend first, Dent said: “Welcome home, brother.”