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Questions swirl after prosecutors’ shift in Adnan Syed murder case

Adnan Syed’s mother, Shamim Syed, center right, celebrates with friends outside of the courthouse after a Baltimore judge ordered the release of her son after overturning his conviction, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam /The Baltimore Sun via AP)

A day after Adnan Syed walked free from a Baltimore courthouse, questions remained about the evidence that led state prosecutors to reverse their support for his conviction in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Prosecutors stood behind the conviction for years, through multiple appeals and widespread public interest in the case following the popular podcast “Serial.” Last week, however, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction in Lee’s killing, citing newly discovered evidence and alleged violations of evidentiary rules.

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

Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted the motion and allowed Syed, 41, to leave the courthouse within an hour of her ruling. The State’s Attorney’s Office has 30 days to either pursue a new trial against Syed or drop the charges entirely.

Precise details of the new evidence in the case remain scarce in part because the prosecution says they are still investigating possible suspects in Lee’s murder. Lee’s family was also left in the dark about what led prosecutors to support Syed’s release, said Steve Kelly, a victim’s rights lawyer who represented the family in court.

“If (prosecutors) had a meritorious motion and they sat down and explained it to (Lee’s family), they would have had the consent of the family,” Kelly said Tuesday.

Instead, Kelly intervened at Monday’s court hearing on the motion to vacate Syed’s sentence. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, objected to how little notice he received of the hearing and ultimately addressed the court after just a half-hour pause in the proceeding. He called it “unfair” that prosecutors had suddenly withdrawn their support for Syed’s conviction.

“There’s nobody who wants to know what happened to Hae more than Young and his mom,” Kelly said. “If somebody else did this, or if there’s somebody else involved in it, they want to know that. The problem is that it wasn’t explained to them, and the information that has been provided is not terribly convincing.”

Kelly said Lee’s family has the right to file an appeal but has not yet decided whether to pursue one.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

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.

The motion to vacate Syed’s conviction all these years later listed a number of reasons for the decision, including prosecutors’ loss of faith in cellphone location data and a key eyewitness who told police Syed took them to Lee’s body.

But central to the motion were two handwritten documents, possibly scrawled by a trial prosecutor, that revealed an additional suspect who’d reportedly said he would kill Lee. Another person contacted police to say that this suspect had a motive to harm Lee, according to court papers. (The motion claimed that evidence of that suspect and another alternative suspect raised questions about Syed’s conviction.)

Becky Feldman, the head of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit, said in court Monday that the handwriting on the documents was “poor and hard to read,” and that she and Syed’s lawyer, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Erica Suter, were “shocked” to find the documents, which had never been disclosed to the defense.

The documents represented a Brady violation, Feldman said, or a breach of the requirement that exculpatory evidence be turned over to the defense, and contributed to prosecutors’ loss of faith in the case. The revelation was especially surprising because Syed’s case file has been so closely scoured by defense attorneys and prosecutors alike in the years since his conviction.

Feldman told The Baltimore Banner that Suter brought the case to her attention in October 2021, and that a review found enough flaws in the original investigation, including the Brady violation, that the State’s Attorney’s Office could no longer support Syed’s conviction.

In a brief and unusual statement issued Monday evening, however, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office disputed that a Brady violation occurred in the case.

“Among other serious problems with the motion to vacate, the allegations related to Brady violations are incorrect,” the office said.

“Neither State’s Attorney Mosby not 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. The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”

Mosby’s office also did not respond to an inquiry about the statement from Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.

Frosh’s office declined to comment when asked directly Tuesday whether it still supports the integrity of Syed’s conviction in Lee’s killing.

Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general who handled Syed’s case on appeal, deferred comment to the Attorney General’s Office.

Kevin Urick, who was one of the assistant state’s attorneys who originally prosecuted Syed, did not return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday. In a 2015 letter to The Daily Record, Urick defended the conviction as “constitutionally valid.”