A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge approved a motion to vacate the 1999 murder conviction of Adnan Syed on Monday after prosecutors uncovered new evidence.
Syed, 41, appeared in court Monday after Baltimore City prosecutors filed a motion last week to vacate his murder conviction in the death of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee — a case chronicled in the popular true-crime podcast Serial.
Lee’s body was found in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in February 1999. She had been strangled and buried in a shallow grave. She was 18.
It took two trials for a jury to convict Syed, as the first ended in a mistrial. Syed had been in jail since his arrest in February 1999, with the U.S. Supreme Court declining to review his case in 2019.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have strengthened Syed’s defense, saying in her ruling:
“In the interest of judgment and fairness, the state’s motion to vacate judgment … is hereby granted. The defendant will be released and placed on remote monitoring … The state will have 30 days to refile or nolle pros. At this time, we will remove the shackles off of Mr. Syed.”
When the decision came, Syed bowed his head, and there were gasps and cries in the Baltimore courtroom.
Outside, a crowd of supporters, many of whom only knew of Syed through the Serial podcast, swarmed around the newly freed man as he flashed a smile and security guards whisked him into an SUV.
“We are not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told the crowd. “But we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial.”
Mosby’s office will decide whether or not Syed must stand trial again before the 30-day deadline set by Judge Phinn. The judge also ordered Syed to be placed in home detention with GPS location monitoring.
“Twenty-three years later, we now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known, that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair,” said Syed’s attorney Erica Suter, the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
The vacating of Syed’s conviction comes in the light of Suter and Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman notifying the courts that they found handwritten notes from the former trial attorney referencing two other suspects and threats against Lee.
Suter and Feldman spent the past year reinvestigating the case and believed the trial attorney did not share the notes with Syed’s defense attorney. They filed a motion last week asking the courts to throw out Syed’s conviction, writing that they are no longer confident he murdered Lee.
Lee’s family had motioned to postpone the hearing until they could participate, but Judge Phinn denied the request.
The judge did grant a 30-minute recess to allow Lee’s brother in California to call into the hearing via Zoom.
Lee’s brother asked the judge to make the “right decision,” saying he felt the motion was unfair, especially to his family. Still, ultimately he expressed confidence that the justice system would convict the right person.
“This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life that will never end — it’s been 20-plus years. It’s a nightmare … This is killing us,” he said.
Steve Kelly, an attorney for the Lee family, spoke up for the family outside the courthouse after the hearing.
“We are disappointed that today’s hearing happened so quickly with, unfortunately, no notice and that the court acted the way it did and that the prosecutor’s office made the recommendation the way that they did,” said Kelly. “This family is interested in the pursuit of justice. They want to know more than anybody who it was that killed Hae Min Lee.”
Kelly added that Lee’s family would consider whether they have any legal recourse.
“There are appeals to violations of victims’ rights that need to be explored,” Kelly said.
The Office of the Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh disputed the allegations that its attorneys withheld evidence, known legally as a “Brady violation.”
“Among the other serious problems with the motion to vacate, the allegations related to Brady violations are incorrect,” Frosh’s office said in a news release issued after the hearing. “Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone from her office bothered to consult with either the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case or with anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations. The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense.”
Mosby, the state attorney, expressed sympathy for Lee’s family and said she understands they may feel betrayed.