BALTIMORE — A judge on Monday overturned Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, years after hit podcast Serial chronicled his case and cast doubt on his role in the killing of former girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn said prosecutors had made a compelling argument that Syed’s convict was defective.
Prosecutors at the trial did not properly turn over evidence to the defense that could have helped them show someone else killed Lee, Phinn said. And new evidence uncovered since the trial added “considerable and significant likelihood that the outcome would have been different.”
Phinn cleared up murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment against Syed. The judge ordered his release without bail.
Shortly before sentencing, District Attorney Becky Feldman said that “justice and fairness” required Syed’s convictions to be overturned.
“The state has lost faith in the integrity of this convection and believes it is in the interest of justice and fairness to overturn its convictions,” Feldman said.
“It is our promise that we will do everything we can to bring justice to the Lee family. That means continuing to use all available resources to bring one or more suspects to justice and to account.”
Syed, who sports a full beard, appeared in court wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, dark tie and traditional Muslim skull-cap.
Maryland prosecutors last week requested that Syed’s conviction be vacated and a new trial allowed, stunning the victim’s family.
Lee’s brother, Young Lee, fought back tears as he spoke in court, wondering how this turn of events had played out.
“This is real life, a never-ending nightmare for over 20 years,” the brother told the court via Zoom.
Steve Kelly, an attorney for Lee’s family, asked Phinn to delay the trial Monday for seven days so the victim’s brother could be present and speak in court.
According to Kelly, the family was not given enough time and did not have an attorney to make a decision about appearing in court.
“To suggest that the prosecution made an appropriate disclosure in these circumstances is outrageous,” Kelly told the court.
“My client is not a lawyer and has not received advice from a lawyer about his rights and how to act accordingly.”
But Phinn said the family, represented by Lee’s brother in California, could easily jump on a zoom to speak in court.
She ordered a 30 minute delay for the brother to get to the computer so he could dial into the hearing.
“I’ve lived with it for more than 20 years,” Lee said. “Every day when I think it’s over, whenever I think it’s over or over, it always comes back.”
Lee was 18 when she was killed in 1999 and her body was found buried in Leakin Park in Baltimore.
After being sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000, Syed, now 42, brought his case to national attention through the 2014 podcast Serial.
Prosecutors had relied on cellphone recordings, which appeared to show Syed was near the park where Lee’s body was found. But they now say they are questioning “unreliable cell tower data” used in Syed’s trial and want to investigate “two alternative suspects”.
“These suspects were known individuals at the time the case was investigated and could not be properly excluded,” prosecutors’ filings last week said.
Syed’s legal team has insisted the cellphone data used against him was unreliable, as cellphone operator AT&T said it only identified where outbound calls were coming from, not inbound calls. Cell phone evidence used in Syed’s trial focused on his phone receiving incoming calls, meaning his general location at the time of Lee’s disappearance could not be verified.
Syed’s defense has also long questioned a key client of the couple’s schoolmate Jay Wilds, who testified that he was with Syed when he buried her body in the park.
Julia Jester reported from Baltimore and David K. Li from New York City.
This is an evolving story, please update here for updates.
Liz Brown Kaiser contributed.