A Baltimore judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after he overturned Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee — a case chronicled in the popular podcast “Serial,” a true crime series that listeners and a revolution in the genre.
At the behest of prosecutors who found new evidence, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered Syed’s conviction to be dropped when she approved the release of the now 41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars. There were cheers and applause in the crowded courtroom as the judge announced her decision.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have strengthened Syed’s defense. She ordered Syed to be placed under house arrest with GPS location monitoring. The judge also said the state must decide within 30 days whether to seek a new trial date or drop the case.
“Okay, Mr. Syed, you’re free to join your family,” Phinn said when the hearing was over.
Minutes later, Syed emerged from the courthouse and flashed a small smile as he was led through a sea of cameras and a cheering crowd of supporters to a waiting SUV.
Syed did not speak during the hearing, nor did he address the reporters outside afterwards. But after the hearing, his attorney Erica Suter described his reaction to the decision, saying, “He said he couldn’t believe it was real.”
Sara Patel, a friend of Syed’s, said: “We are very happy and relieved that he is finally free. We have been sitting on pins and needles the whole time.”
Syed has always maintained his innocence. His case caught the attention of millions in 2014, when the debut season of “Serial” focused on Lee’s murder and cast doubt on some of the evidence prosecutors had used, sparking heated debates at tables and water coolers about Syed’s innocence or guilt.
Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying a lengthy defense investigation had revealed new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend.
“I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the right person accountable,” assistant attorney Becky Feldman told the judge as she described several details from the case that undermine the decades-old conviction, including other defendants. , flawed cell phone records, unreliable witness statements, and a potentially biased detective.
After the hearing, state attorney Marilyn Mosby said investigators are waiting for the results of “DNA analysis” before deciding whether to seek a new trial date or drop the case against Syed and “confirm his innocence.”
Syed was serving a life sentence after being convicted of strangling 18-year-old Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park.
The investigation “revealed undisclosed and newly developed information about two alternate suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone data,” Mosby’s office said in a press release last week. The other suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation but were not properly excluded and were not disclosed to the defense, prosecutors said, who declined to release information about the suspects due to the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors said they did not allege Syed was innocent, but they had no confidence “in the integrity of the sentencing” and advised his release on his own admission or bail. The prosecutor’s office had said that if the motion were granted, it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, lifting his convictions, while keeping the case active.
Syed was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs on Monday. He wore a white shirt with a tie and sat down next to his lawyer. His mother and other members of the family were in the room, as was Mosby.
In 2016, a lower court ordered a new trial for Syed on the grounds that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, had failed to contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.
But after a series of appeals, Maryland’s 2019 Supreme Court dismissed a new trial in a 4-3 opinion. The Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel failed to investigate an alibi witness, but disagreed that the failure harmed the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective attorney claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
The true-crime series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case, reporting her findings in near real-time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularizing podcasts for a wide audience.
During the hearing, Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, addressed the court and said he feels betrayed by prosecutors because he believed the case was settled.
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict, Mosby expressed sympathy for Lee’s brother and said she understands why he feels betrayed.
“But I also understand how important it is as the administration of the criminal justice system to ensure equality and justice and fairness. So has the accused,” she added.
Associated Press writers Mike Kunzelman and Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.