(BALTIMORE) — Prosecutors in Maryland have dropped charges against Adnan Syed, the man who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend in 2000, a case made popular by the 2014 “Serial” podcast that investigated issues with the prosecution.
Syed, who is now 41, had been serving a life sentence for the past 23 years — more than half his life — since his arrest in 1999.
He was just 17 when he was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and imprisonment of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 2000.
On Jan. 13, 1999, 18-year-old Lee vanished after leaving Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was a senior.
Her body was found around one month later buried in a park in Baltimore. She had been strangled.
Syed has maintained his innocence and denied any involvement in Lee’s death.
State’s Attorney for Baltimore City Marilyn Mosby said Tuesday Syed had been in prison for 23 years for a “wrongful conviction.”
“The fundamentals of the criminal justice system should be based on fair and just prosecution,” Mosby told reporters in Baltimore at an afternoon news conference. “And the crux of the matter is that we are standing here today because that wasn’t done 23 years ago.”
Mosby said some items had been tested that weren’t previously and notably, Syed’s DNA had been “excluded.”
“It is my responsibility to to acknowledge and to apologize to the family of Hae Min Lee and to the family of Adnan Syed,” she said. “As the administrator of the criminal justice system, it’s my duty to ensure that justice is not delayed. Justice is never denied, but justice be done. Today, justice is done. And that means today, tomorrow, and until my administration ends, we will continue to utilize every available resource to prosecute whoever is responsible for the death of hate me because this is an open and pending investigation.”
Mosby said her office reached out to the lawyer for Hae Min Lee’s family before they released anything publicly but they had not heard back.
“Today’s a day that Adnan Syed and his loved ones have been waiting for for 23 long years. The results of the DNA testing exclude Adnan and confirm what Adnan and his supporters have always known: Adnan Syed is innocent,” Assistant Public Defender and Director of the Innocence Project Clinic at University of Baltimore Law School Erica Suter told reporters Tuesday.
Syed did not appear at the virtual press conference and his lawyer requested privacy for Syed and his family so they could begin the process of healing.
“We offer our deepest sympathy to the family of Hae Min Lee and we join in the hopes that an investigation will bring them real answers and a sense of closure,” Suter, one of Syed’s attorneys, added.
Syed plans to spend time with his loved ones without being on home detention and without an ankle monitor, she said.
“I think he’s just really elated to be able to have the small quiet everyday joys of freedom that many of us take for granted,” she said.
Judge Michelle Phinn ordered Syed’s release last month after prosecutors requested that his conviction be vacated.
“At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed,” Phinn declared after announcing her decision from the bench.
She said then that “in the interests of fairness and justice,” Syed should be released on his own recognizance after finding that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have helped his trial in 2000 and after new evidence was discovered that could have affected the outcome of his case.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office had 30 days to decide whether to either schedule a new trial date or drop the case.
Lee’s family had appealed Syed’s overturned conviction, saying Mosby’s office neglected to provide them adequate notice to attend the hearing. The family asked the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to pause the proceeding while the court considered their appeal.
Last week, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined Lee’s family in asking the state’s appellate court to put a hold on Syed’s case in the trial court.
It is unclear what these new developments mean for the family’s appeal.
With regard to the appeal, Suter said in an earlier statement, “While the proceedings are not completely over, this is an important step for Adnan, who has been on house arrest since the motion to vacate was first granted last month. He still needs some time to process everything that has happened and we ask that you provide him and his family with that space.”
In a motion filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court last month, prosecutors said that a nearly yearlong investigation conducted in collaboration with Syed’s defense attorney had uncovered information pointing to the possible involvement of two “alternative suspects” as well as key evidence that didn’t come up at the original trial.
Prosecutors have not named the new suspects.
Their motion detailed how one of the two suspects at one point threatened to kill Lee and both had documented records of violence toward women.
One of the suspects was reportedly convicted of a series of rapes, according to the court documents, while one was convicted of attacking a woman.
“After a nearly year-long investigation reviewing the facts of this case, Syed deserves a new trial where he is adequately represented and the latest evidence can be presented,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said last month in a statement.
“We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in results of the first trial, would be unjust,” Mosby said.
At his original trial, prosecutors relied on testimony from a friend, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed dig a hole for Lee’s body.
Prosecutors presented cell phone records and expert witness testimony to place Syed at the site where Lee was buried.
At a post-conviction hearing in 2016, a forensics expert testified that those cellphone records were unreliable and should not have been used to convict Syed.
A 2019 appeal for a new trial was previously turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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