By Jasmine Kim
For the first time since he was a teenager, 41 year old Adnan Syed walked out of the courthouse with a smile on his face after spending 23 years fighting his conviction on charges that he murdered his former high school classmate and girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
His release can be credited to a rare confluence of people and policy. These include devoted friends, a prosecutor with a history of defense work, a new law regarding juvenile sentences, and millions of podcast listeners who called attention to unfair inconsistencies.
The case against Adnan Syed first received nationwide attention as the subject in the first season of the hit podcast “Serial,” released in 2014. Syed steadfastly maintained his innocence. Questions about whether he had received a fair trial arose when he became the star of “Serial,” one of the most well known true crime podcasts in the world. However, it took more than a podcast, documentary, and media attention to free Adnan Syed.
Over the last few years, new legislation worked in Syed’s favor. Prosecutors agreed to new DNA testing, which was merited due to advances in genetic profiling. The Juvenile Restoration Act allowed prosecutors the discretion to modify sentences of offenders who were under 18 at the time of their crimes and had served at least 20 years in prison. The state legislature also passed a bill that allowed judges to grant requests to vacate convictions “in the interest of justice and fairness.”
After years of appeals, Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated the conviction as new information concerning the involvement of two “alternative suspects,” as well as “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” presented at trial could have affected the outcome of his case years ago, according to the New York Times.
The state of Maryland no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction, according to the New York Times. Prosecutors have 30 days to decide if they will proceed with a new trial or drop the charges against Syed, who was ordered to serve home detention until then.
In a statement with the New York Times, Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, said that prosecutors were waiting for a DNA analysis that could help determine whether Syed’s case would be dismissed or proceed to another trial.
Syed had been serving a life sentence for the strangulation of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose body was found buried in Leakin park in Baltimore nearly a month after she was murdered.
His conviction relied heavily on unreliable testimonies from Jay Wilds, a friend of Syed who testified that he helped bury Lee’s body, and cellphone tower records near Leakin Park.
However, in a motion filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, prosecutors said that a nearly yearlong investigation, conducted with Syed’s lawyer found “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” used to convict Syed, including cell phone tower data.
The subsequent investigation also uncovered new evidence that prosecutors were aware of two other possible suspects, including one who had a motive to kill Lee, and had failed to hand over information to defense attorneys, according to the Washington Post.
Court filings showed that one of the suspects had threatened to make Lee “disappear” and “kill her.” The filing also alleged one “engaged in multiple instances of rape and sexual assault,” and one had relatives who lived near the area where Lee’s car was found.
However, Syed’s release has not been universally welcomed. Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said in court that he felt “betrayed” by the state’s attorney’s office motion, granted by the judge, to vacate Syed’s conviction and frustrated with the many turns in the case.
“Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back. It’s killing me and killing my mother,” Lee said in his statement. “This is not a podcast for me. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
After his conviction was vacated, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby emphasized Syed has not been deemed innocent.
“We’re not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent, but we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial,” Mosby said during a press conference.