BALTIMORE — A judge on Monday vacated the murder conviction by Adnan Syed, years after the popular podcast “Serial” covered his case, casting doubt on his role in the 1999 murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
City Circuit Court judge Melissa Phinn said prosecutors have presented a compelling argument that Syed’s conviction was wrong and that he should be released immediately.
Prosecutors failed to properly hand over evidence to defense attorneys that could have helped them show that someone else killed Lee, Phinn said. And evidence discovered since the trial would have added a “significant and significant probability that the outcome would have been different.”
Phinn clears murder, kidnapping, robbery and false prison terms. The judge ordered Syed to be released without bail and placed under house arrest with GPS location monitoring.
Shortly before the verdict, prosecutor Becky Feldman said “justice and fairness” called for Syed’s convictions to be dropped.
“The state has lost faith in the integrity of this conviction and believes it is in the interests of justice and fairness that its convictions be revoked,” Feldman said.
“It is our promise that we will do everything we can to bring justice to the Lee family. That means we will continue to use all available resources to bring a suspect or suspects to justice and hold them accountable.”
Syed, who has a full beard, appeared in court wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, dark tie and traditional Muslim skullcap.
When Phinn ordered guards to “remove his shackles,” Syed’s supporters burst into applause in the courtroom.
Phinn gave the state 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or close the case.
Out of court, Baltimore state attorney Marilyn Mosby welcomed the judge’s ruling as Syed stepped outside, greeted with cheers, and was shown in a waiting car before being driven away.
“We are not yet declaring Adnan Syed’s innocence,” Mosby told reporters. “We declare that in the interests of fairness and justice he is entitled to a new trial.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh called Mosby’s allegations “false.”
“Neither the state attorney Mosby nor anyone in her office bothered to consult the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case or anyone in my office about these alleged violations,” Frosh said in a statement. “The file in this case has been made available to the defense several times.”
Maryland prosecutors last week asked for Syed’s conviction to be revoked, leaving the victim’s family stunned.
Lee’s brother, Young Lee, wept during his virtual court hearing Monday, wondering how this turn of events unfolded.
“I’ve lived with this for over 20 years, and every day when I think it’s over, when I think it’s over or it’s over, it always comes back,” he told the court via Zoom. “And it’s not just me. It’s killing me, and it’s killing my mother.”
Steve Kelly, a lawyer for Lee’s family, asked Phinn to postpone Monday’s proceedings by seven days so that Lee’s brother could attend and address the court.
The family was not given enough time and did not have a lawyer to make a decision about appearing in court, Kelly said.
“It is outrageous to suggest that the prosecution has been sufficiently informed under these circumstances,” Kelly told the court. “My client is not a lawyer and has not been advised by a lawyer about his rights and to act accordingly.”
But Phinn said the family, represented by Lee’s brother in California, could easily jump on Zoom to address the court. She gave the brother a 30-minute reprieve to get to a computer so he could dial in to the hearing.
“I was a bit taken aback,” Lee told the court. “I always thought the state was on my side, but out of nowhere I hear that there is a motion to lift the verdict, and I honestly thought I felt betrayed.”
Hae Min Lee was 18 when she was murdered in 1999. Her body was found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.
Syed, now 42, was sentenced to life behind bars in 2000 and his case gained national exposure through the 2014 podcast “Series.”
The true-crime series was the brainchild of radio producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, 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.
The podcast’s official Twitter account said Koenig was in court on Monday and a new episode of the series would be available on Tuesday.
Prosecutors had relied on mobile phone data that seemed to indicate that Syed was near the park where Lee’s body was found. But they are now questioning “unreliable cell tower data” used in Syed’s trial and want to look into “two alternative suspects”.
“These suspects were known persons at the time of the investigation of the case and not properly excluded,” the prosecutor said last week.
Syed’s legal team has maintained that the mobile data used against him was unreliable because carrier AT&T had said it only determined where outgoing calls came from, not incoming calls. The mobile evidence used against Syed focused on his phone’s incoming calls, meaning his general location around the time Lee disappeared could not be verified.
Syed’s defense has also long questioned a key account of the couple’s classmate, Jay Wild, 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.