A Baltimore judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after he overturned his conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee — a case chronicled on the popular podcast serial, a true-crime series that grounded listeners and revolutionized the genre.
At the behest of prosecutors who found new evidence, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered Syed’s conviction to be dropped and authorized the release of the 41-year-old, who has spent more than two decades behind bars. There were cheers and applause in the crowded courtroom as the judge announced her decision.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have strengthened Syed’s defense. She ordered him to be released and held at home with GPS location monitoring. She also ordered the state to decide within 30 days whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case.
“Okay, Mr. Syed, you’re free to join your family,” Phinn said when the hearing was over.
Minutes later, Syed emerged from the courthouse and flashed a small smile as he was led through a sea of cameras and a cheering crowd of supporters to a waiting SUV.
Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, got a lot of attention in 2014 when the debut season of serial focused on Lee’s murder and expressed doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors had used, sparking numerous table debates about Syed’s innocence or guilt.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying a lengthy defense investigation had revealed new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend.
“I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the right person accountable,” assistant attorney Becky Feldman told the judge as she described several details from the case that undermine the decades-old conviction, including other defendants. , flawed cell phone records, unreliable witness statements, and a potentially biased detective.
After the hearing, state attorney Marilyn Mosby said investigators are waiting for the results of “TNZT analysis” before deciding whether to seek a new trial date or drop the case against Syed and “confirm his innocence.”
Syed was serving a life sentence after being convicted of strangling 18-year-old Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park.
The investigation “revealed undisclosed and newly developed information about two alternate suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone data,” Mosby’s office said in a press release last week. The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation but were not properly excluded and were not disclosed to the defense, prosecutors said, who declined to release information about the suspects due to the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors said they did not claim Syed is innocent, but they had no confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and advised him to be released on his own admission or bail. The prosecution had said that if the motion were granted, it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, lifting his convictions, while keeping the case active.
Supreme Court Refused to Review Case in 2019
Syed was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs on Monday. He wore a white shirt with a tie and sat next to his lawyer. His mother and other members of the family were in the room, as was Mosby.
“Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit,” Mosby told a news conference after the hearing.
In 2016, a lower court ordered a new trial for Syed on the grounds that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, had failed to contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.
But after a series of appeals, Maryland’s 2019 Supreme Court dismissed a new trial in a 4-3 opinion. The Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel failed to investigate an alibi witness, but disagreed that the failure harmed the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective attorney claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
The true-crime podcast series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case, reporting her findings in near real-time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularizing podcasts for a wide audience.
A tweet of the official serial Twitter account said Koenig was in the courthouse when Syed was released Monday and a new episode of the podcast would be available Tuesday morning.
During the hearing, Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, spoke to the court and said he feels betrayed by prosecutors because he believed the case was settled.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict, Mosby expressed sympathy for Lee’s brother and said she understands why he feels betrayed.
“But I also understand how important it is as the administration of the criminal justice system to ensure equality and justice and fairness. So has the accused,” she said.