By Eric Levenson, Lauren Koenig and Dakin Andone, CNN
A judge on Monday approved a motion by prosecutors to overturn the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the first season of the popular ‘Serial’ podcast, who maintained he was innocent in the murder of his ex-girlfriend friend in 1999.
Baltimore prosecutors filed the motion last week asking for a new trial for Syed, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and forcible confinement in connection with the murder of Hae Min Lee.
In explaining her decision to quit, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn cited material from the state’s investigation that was not properly released to defense attorneys, as well as the existence of two suspects who may have been improperly cleared as part of the investigation.
His decision was met with cheers and tears in the courtroom. Syed – who attended the hearing wearing a white button-up shirt, dark tie and kufi cap – was not handcuffed, but his feet were. After the ruling, officials untied his ankles and soon after Syed walked out of the courthouse to cheers and applause from supporters. He did not stop to speak to reporters as he got into a vehicle.
“We are not yet declaring that Adnan Syed is innocent,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Monday following the judge’s ruling. “But we declare that in the interests of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial.”
Prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether or not to pursue a new trial, and they are awaiting DNA analysis which they are trying to expedite to determine whether Adnan’s case is dismissed or the case should go to trial. But that warrant, Mosby said, is “separate and separate” from the investigation into who killed Lee.
In the meantime, Syed will wear an ankle monitor with tracking, according to Becky Feldman, head of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office Sentencing Review Unit.
Twenty-three years after his incarceration, “we now know what Adnan and those close to him always knew, which was that Adnan’s trial was grossly and grossly unfair. Evidence was withheld from him, evidence that pointed to other people being the killers,” Deputy Public Defender Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and clinic director for the Innocence Project, said in a statement following the incident. decision.
The hearing comes nearly eight years after the “Serial” podcast dug into his case, raising questions about the conviction and his legal representation. In doing so, the podcast reached a large audience and sparked a boom in crime podcasting as well as other examinations of the case, including the HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed”.
Prosecutors decided to overturn Syed’s conviction following a nearly year-long investigation, they said in a news release last week. At the time, Mosby said prosecutors “are not, at this time, asserting that Mr. Syed is innocent,” but that the state “lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction” and that Syed should get a new trial.
The reexamination of the case revealed evidence of the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed, including a person who said they would ‘disappear’ Lee and ‘(h)e would kill her,’ said the prosecutors. Syed’s lawyers said he and his legal team were unaware the information existed until this year.
Defense attorneys welcomed the prosecution’s motion to quash the conviction as righting a wrong.
“Given the overwhelming lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with growing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” Suter said in a statement last week.
In a press release, Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue called the case “a true example of how justice delayed is justice denied.” An innocent man spends decades wrongfully incarcerated, while any information or evidence that might help identify the real perpetrator becomes increasingly difficult to track down.
What we know about the case
Adnan and Lee were seniors at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County in January 1999 when she disappeared. His strangled body was discovered in a city forest three weeks later.
Syed and prosecutors filed a joint motion in March for post-conviction DNA testing, saying that since the crime happened more than two decades ago, “DNA testing has changed and improved dramatically.”
The March motion requested that the victim’s clothing be tested for tactile DNA, which was not available at the time of the trial. The items currently being tested had not been tested before in 2018 — when the Baltimore City Police Lab tested various items for DNA — except for the victim’s fingernail clippings, according to the release. Mosby.
Mosby said the motion to vacate was filed with sentencing review unit chief Becky Feldman. Syed was a minor when he was convicted.
The alternate suspects were individuals known at the time of the initial investigation “and were not properly excluded or disclosed to the defense,” according to Mosby’s statement.
The state is not releasing the names of the suspects but said that according to the trial record, one said: ‘He would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her.
The investigation also revealed that a suspect had been convicted of assaulting a woman in her vehicle, the statement said. The second suspect was convicted of serial rape and sexual assault, the statement said.
Some of the information was available at the time of the trial, the statement said, and some was revealed later. It is not known when these assaults took place.
Lee’s car was “directly behind the home of one of the suspect’s family members,” the statement said.
Syed’s lawyers brought the case to the attention of the Sentence Review Unit in April 2021.
Syed’s attorneys “have identified significant reliability issues regarding the most critical evidence at trial,” Mosby’s statement said.
In the 2019 HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” an attorney for Syed said his client’s DNA was not found on any of 12 samples recovered from the victim’s body and car. These tests were not part of the official investigation by the authorities. HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.
At trial, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a friend, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed dig a hole for Lee’s body. To corroborate his account, prosecutors presented cellphone records and expert testimony to place Syed at the site where Lee was buried.
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CNN’s Lauren Koenig reported from Baltimore, while Dakin Andone and Eric Levenson wrote this story in New York. CNN’s Amy Simonson, Ray Sanchez and Sonia Moghe contributed to this report.