A Baltimore judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after he overturned his conviction for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee — a case chronicled in the popular podcast Serial.
The state judge, Melissa Phinn, ruled that the state had violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense and ordered that Syed be placed under house arrest with GPS monitoring. Phinn also gave the state 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or dismiss the case.
When the hearing was over, Phinn said, “Okay Mr. Syed, you are free to join your family.”
Outside, Syed smiled as he was led to an SUV by a sea of cameras and cheering supporters.
Lee was 18 when she was strangled and murdered. Her body was found buried in Leakin Park, Baltimore, in February 1999.
Syed’s first trial, in December 1999, ended in a mistrial. At his second trial, in February 2000, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Now 41, he has spent more than 20 years behind bars. He has always maintained his innocence.
On Monday, he was led handcuffed to the crowded courtroom. He wore a white shirt with a tie and sat down next to his lawyer. His mother and other family representatives were in the room, as was the District Attorney, Marilyn Mosby.
The case first received significant attention in 2014, when Serial’s debut season raised doubts about any evidence being used.
The 12-part true-crime series was created by Sarah Koenig, a radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter who spent more than a year investigating the case and reporting her findings in hour-long segments. The podcast won a Peabody Award and did a lot to popularize the format.
In 2016, a judge in Maryland raised doubts about mobile evidence used to convict Syed and said he should face a new trial.
Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and activist, then wrote: “Adnan is my younger brother’s best friend and also like a brother to me. From the day he was pulled from his bed in the early morning hours of February 26, 1999 until today, he has maintained his innocence and I and my family have believed him.”
Chaudry also said: “Every piece of forensic evidence collected pointed to Adnan’s innocence. From the hairs on Lee’s body, which didn’t match Adnan, to the dozens of soil samples taken from his clothes, shoes, car and room, which showed negative results for matching soil from Leakin Park.”
Lee’s family then said: “It remains difficult to see so many people running to defend someone who has committed a terrible crime, who has destroyed our family, who refuses to take responsibility when so few are willing to stand up for Hae. “
The family also said, “Unlike those learning about this case on the internet, we sat and watched both trials every day — so many witnesses, so much evidence.”
The state appealed the review decision. In the end, the Maryland Supreme Court denied Syed a new trial. The US Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying that a lengthy investigation with the defense revealed new evidence that could undermine Syed’s conviction.
Mosby’s office said an investigation had revealed “undisclosed and newly developed information about two alternate suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone data.”
The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation but were not duly excluded or disclosed to the defense, prosecutors said, who declined to release information about the suspects due to the ongoing investigation.
An assistant state attorney, Becky Feldman, described details that undermined the conviction, including unreliable witness statements and a potentially biased detective.
Feldman said, “I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the right person accountable.”
On Monday, Lee’s family did not immediately comment.
Mosby said investigators waited for “TNZT analysis” results before deciding whether to seek a new trial or drop the case and “certify” [Syed’s] innocence”.
She also said, “Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit.”