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Judge vacates Syed’s conviction in 1999 murder that was subject of ‘Serial’ podcast

Judge vacates Syed’s conviction in 1999 murder that was subject of ‘Serial’ podcast

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Adnan Syed, 41, in white, leaves court on Sept. 19 after his conviction in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee was vacated. (The Daily Record/Madeleine O’Neill)

After spending 23 years in prison for murder, Adnan Syed walked free Monday after a Baltimore City judge vacated his conviction in the 1999 slaying of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Prosecutors asked to vacate Syed’s conviction last week, citing newly discovered Brady violations and other flaws in the original investigation. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted the motion Monday and agreed to release Syed on his own recognizance while an investigation into Lee’s death continues.

RELATED: Questions swirl after prosecutors’ shift in Adnan Syed murder case

Syed, 41, did not comment as he left the courthouse to cheers from his supporters. Phinn ordered court staff to remove his shackles in the courtroom after she overturned his conviction.

Syed’s lawyer, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Erica Suter, said after the hearing that Syed told her he “couldn’t believe it’s real.”

The case was the subject of the popular podcast “Serial” and a follow-up HBO series. Syed always maintained his innocence in the murder, even after a jury found him guilty in 2000 and he was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said last week that it had lost faith in the conviction and would seek a new trial. A re-investigation of the case found that there were two alternative suspects in the murder who were not properly ruled out, according to the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

Neither suspect is identified in the motion in order to protect the ongoing investigation. But the motion indicates that prosecutors knew one of the suspects had reportedly said he would kill Lee and had a motive for the murder. That information was not disclosed to the defense.

Becky Feldman, the head of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit, said in court Monday that she was “shocked” to find those handwritten details contained in the prosecution’s file.

The re-investigation also found new evidence that Lee’s car was recovered from near the home of one of the suspects, and that one of the suspects was convicted of a series of rapes. One of the suspects was convicted of attacking a woman while she was in his vehicle, and one of the suspects was accused of being violent toward another woman. It is not clear what claims relate to which of the two alternative suspects in Lee’s murder.

Feldman said that prosecutors believe one of the suspects had the “motive, means and the opportunity to commit this crime.”

Prosecutors also said they could not rely on cellphone location evidence that was crucial to Syed’s conviction. Although the cell records were specifically identified as being unreliable indicators of location when they were provided to prosecutors, Syed’s defense attorney did not challenge the evidence at his trial.

The State’s Attorney’s Office also wrote that it could not trust the testimony of a key eyewitness, Jay Wilds, who told police that Syed showed him Lee’s body in the trunk of her car. Wilds also said that he helped Syed bury Lee’s body in Leakin Park.

“We need to be sure we held the correct person accountable,” Feldman said in court.

Prosecutors are not yet willing to declare Syed innocent. They have 30 days to determine whether to pursue a new trial or to drop the charges against Syed entirely.

Suter, however, said in absolute terms that Syed is innocent. Suter is the director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic.

“Twenty-three years later we now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known: that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair,” Suter said. “Evidence was hidden from him. Evidence that pointed to other people as the killers.”

Lee, 18, was last seen at Woodlawn High School on Jan. 13, 1999. Her body was found in Leakin Park several weeks later. Police said she was strangled to death and accused Syed, who had been in an on-again-off-again relationship with Lee.

Monday’s hearing was briefly put on hold so that the court could hear from Lee’s brother, Young Lee. Lee, who lives in California, spoke over Zoom and said he would have preferred to address the court in person but was only notified of the hearing on Friday afternoon.

Lee said he did not oppose another investigation into his sister’s killing, but said he found it unfair that prosecutors had suddenly decided to withdraw support for Syed’s conviction.

“Going through it again is living a nightmare over and over again,” Lee said. “This is not a podcast or a movie. This is real life. A never-ending nightmare.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said her office is continuing to investigate Hae Min Lee’s killing and is seeking DNA testing. She did not say what will happen if the DNA testing is not returned within the 30-day window required to retry Syed.

In a statement released late Monday, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office denied Mosby’s claims of violations of Brady v. Maryland — the requirement that exculpatory evidence be turned over by prosecutors to the defense. The Attorney General’s Office handled Syed’s case on appeal.

“Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone from her office bothered to consult with either the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case or with anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in a statement. “The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”

The state’s attorney’s filing came six months after Phinn ordered Baltimore police to send evidence in the case against Syed to a California crime lab. The order followed a motion jointly signed by prosecutors and Syed’s defense seeking a retest of some items collected as evidence in the killing of 17-year-old Lee using DNA technology not available for Syed’s 2000 trial.

The DNA testing mostly yielded inconclusive results or no results, according to the new court filings.

The popular “Serial” podcast that premiered in 2014 examined whether Syed’s case was prejudiced because his trial attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, failed to contact an alibi witness. Gutierrez died in 2004.

Syed’s bid for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel essentially ended in November 2019 when the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

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