More than two decades after Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison and eight years after the shaky case against him became the center of the hit podcast “Serial,” a Baltimore judge on Monday ordered that Syed’s conviction be vacated and he walked out of court a free man.
There were cheers inside the court as officers unleashed Syed’s shackles.
Syed, 41 and imprisoned for over two decades, was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs Monday. But after Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that Syed’s conviction be vacated, his shackles were removed and he left wearing a white shirt with a tie. His mother and other family representatives left with him.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense. She ordered him released from custody and placed in home detention with GPS location monitoring. She also ordered the state to decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.
The move came after prosecutors said they no longer have faith in their original case – something that many followers of “Serial” have been saying for years.
The first season of the podcast, spanning 12 episodes, spawned investigations into Syed’s conviction, books, documentaries and national media attention. The podcast concluded with host, Sarah Koenig, saying she was unsure who killed Hae Min Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend.
That ambiguity captured national attention as Koenig examined glaring problems with both Syed’s defense and the prosecution’s case, exploring shoddy cellphone data, inconsistent timelines, ignored witnesses and other possible suspects.
Syed was sentenced to a lifetime in prison, plus 30 years after he was convicted of the 1999 murder. He has maintained his innocence since age 17.
Despite public attention, legal representation, and mass advocacy pushing to overturn Syed’s conviction, multiple appeals were denied and it took prosecutors admitting errors years later to reach this point.
Experts say the vast majority of prisoners don’t have such opportunities, making their struggle even more difficult.
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Syed’s case, and the doubts around it, captured national attention
The true-crime frenzy around Syed is one of the most high-profile examples of podcasts, TV shows and media reports casting serious doubts about previously obscure convictions. But until recently, Syed remained in jail with few legal options left.
That changed when Baltimore’s state’s attorney filed a motion to vacate the conviction judgment against him Wednesday, saying a lengthy investigation uncovered new evidence that could undermine his 2000 murder conviction.
Syed had already been fighting his conviction for years when a family friend and lawyer connected him with Koenig, the future host of what would become “Serial.”
Koenig essentially revived the case in 2014, tracking down old friends of Syed and Lee, sorting through thousands of documents and court hearings, and ultimately developing an investigation that appeared to uncover multiple problems with Syed’s trial.
Deirdre Enright, a law professor and founder of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, said Syed would have had few options to try and overturn his conviction without the public attention.
“Adnan Syed would be nowhere if Sarah Koenig hadn’t stepped in and turned him into a national spectacle,” Enright said. “Like most, he would have been on his own.”
A 2021 Maryland law allowing for people convicted of crimes as juveniles to seek new sentences after 20 years in prison also helped move his case forward, said Enright, who was featured on several episodes of “Serial.”
Prosecutors said a yearlong investigation into Syed’s case revealed two alternate suspects and “significant reliability issues” with evidence used to convict him.
Prosecutors asked for a new trial, at the minimum. The state is awaiting DNA analysis to decide whether they want to pursue a new trial or drop the case, Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore City, said at a press conference following the hearing.
“We’re not yet declaring that Adnan Syed is innocent,” she said. “But we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial.”
‘Unfortunate … not uncommon’: Syed’s lengthy process to overturn conviction
The long battle Syed faced isn’t unique, said Amanda Vicary, chair and professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s not uncommon at all that even people who are actually innocent may be in prison for 20 years before they find someone to represent them and before all of the appeals and everything make their way through the court system,” Vicary said.
In the U.S., 375 people have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989 in various types of cases, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit focused on freeing innocent people and preventing wrongful convictions. On average, those people served an average of 14 years per person before they were released.
Syed was granted new DNA testing in 2022 with procedures that weren’t available when he was put on trial over 20 years ago. Most of the testing yielded inconclusive or non-useful results, the motion filed Wednesday says. Prosecutors are awaiting additional DNA analysis.
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Erica Suter, director of the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project Clinic, thanked Syed’s supporters and the court after the hearing for “doing the right thing.”
“When prosecutors do not do their duty, when they do not disclose evidence as they are supposed to, the result can be that innocent people like Adnan waste decades of their lives for crimes they did not commit,” she said.
Despite his long wait to overturn his conviction, Syed has been given chances most people in the criminal justice system have not, experts say, along with a heavy dose of publicity.
One avenue to seek an overturned conviction is through a post-conviction lawyer, something Syed has employed. But once someone’s been convicted, it’s difficult to hire one, especially for those without money or family.
“Once you go to prison, you don’t get a lawyer – you’re on your own,” Vicary said.
Without a post-conviction lawyer, the other viable option to overturn a conviction is to seek help from organizations like the Innocence Project – but even UVA’s, which has more staff than others, has a waiting list of hundreds, according to Enright.
Allowing outside influence into a courtroom directly conflicts with American judges’ code of conflict. But in a case broken wide open to the public, like Syed’s, public influence may be all but unavoidable.
“They might not want to admit it, or they may not even be consciously aware of it, but I think it would be hard to say that (public attention is) not affecting things in some way,” Vicary said.
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‘Serial’ ushered in a new era of true crime but left victims behind
When Koenig came to Enright with the idea of turning “Serial” into a full-length podcast, the law professor’s first thought was that no one would care.
“I’ve been doing these cases for years … I was like, ‘nobody cares about that,'” Enright said. “That’s why I have to keep doing this.”
But to Enright’s surprise, she was proven wrong – and happily so. “Serial” is one of the most celebrated podcasts of all time: it’s widely cited as the most listened-to podcast in the world with over 300 million downloads, according to “This American Life,” which produced the podcast.
Americans have had a fascination with true crime for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1800s when newspapers started hiring crime reporters and printing sensational trials on their front pages, said Adam Golub, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.
And there’s “no question” that “Serial” inaugurated a new cycle of that fascination, Golub said.
“What something like ‘Serial’ did is it turned all of us into de facto jurors or investigators – we get to be these armchair experts on these crimes who then feel like we can make up our own mind about it,” he said.
But Serial – and many other true-crime productions – overwhelmingly focuses on the perpetrator and not the victim.
“This is really about the murder of someone,” he said. “Hae Min Lee has kind of been overshadowed by all of this.”
During the hearing, Lee’s brother Young Lee spoke to the court, saying he feels betrayed by prosecutors since he thought the case was settled.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.
In a statement Monday, Lee’s family said they continue to “have questions in its pursuit of justice.”
“For 22 years the family and the world have been told that Adnan Syed murdered Hae Min Lee. Now the Court and prosecutors have a different view,” the statement reads. “They are disappointed that today’s hearing happened so quickly and with virtually no notice, and they do not understand why the court acted the way it did and why the prosecutor’s office has made the recommendation they did.”
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Contributing: The Associated Press