Baltimore prosecutors move to vacate Adnan Syed conviction in 1999 murder case brought to national fame in ‘Serial’ podcast

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man whose legal saga rocketed to international renown with the hit podcast “Serial,” could get a new trial after city prosecutors determined their predecessors withheld information about alternative suspects in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office moved Wednesday to vacate Syed’s conviction, according to legal papers filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The new motion said prosecutors on the case decades ago knew there was another suspect who threatened to kill Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend, and neglected to disclose the information to defense attorneys — committing what’s known as a Brady violation.

Lee was strangled to death and buried in a clandestine grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Authorities at the time believed Syed struggled with Lee in a car before he killed and dragged her through the park. He has always maintained his innocence.

A year-long investigation conducted by prosecutors and Syed’s attorney uncovered new evidence, including that “alternative suspects” either engaged in serial rape and sexual assault or attacked a woman in a vehicle, the documents show. Prosecutors’ motion also says that Lee’s vehicle was located near a home of one of the alternative suspects.

While the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby does not concede Syed, now 41, is innocent, their motion says they no longer have faith in his conviction.

“The State’s Brady violations robbed the Defendant of information that would have bolstered his investigation and argument that someone else was responsible for the victim’s death,” Becky Feldman, chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit, wrote in the motion.

Syed’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, responded with her own legal paper supporting prosecutors’ motion. She also issued a statement through the public defender’s office.

“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Suter, who is the director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”

Prosecutors asked a judge to set a hearing, to order a new trial and to release Syed on his own recognizance pending the ongoing investigation. A judge has not yet set a hearing for the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, and it’s the court’s decision whether to undo a judgment.

Syed is currently incarcerated at the Patuxent Institution, a state prison in Jessup.

He was arrested and jailed at age 17. After 23 years behind bars, he may be able to go home.

His longtime friend and public advocate, Rabia Chaudry, described prosecutors’ move to vacate his conviction as surreal. She credited years of work and investigation.

“This is validating,” Chaudry said. “It’s what we’ve been saying for decades.”

A state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman said the office notified Lee’s family before filing the motion to vacate Syed’s sentence. Lee’s family has a right to attend the hearing on the case, assuming the judge sets one. Attempts by The Baltimore Sun to speak with her relatives Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The development marks a dramatic turn in a legal saga that resonated with listeners and viewers across America and beyond. In addition to This American Life’s “Serial” podcast, which was downloaded more than 300 million times, Syed’s case was featured in an HBO documentary series and a book.

Syed stood trial twice for the homicide. A jury in 2000 found him guilty of premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. At sentencing, the judge gave him life plus 30 years in prison.

Syed appealed again and again, with trial judges and appellate courts denying his lawyers’ claims as many times. In 2018, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals determined Syed was entitled to a new trial, only for the state’s top court to overrule the opinion the next year. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.

Now, prosecutors say, the approximately year-long probe focused on two alternative suspects who were known to the authorities 23 years ago but not disclosed to Syed’s defense. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys will reveal the suspects’ identities because the investigation is ongoing, according to the motion.

One of the suspects had threatened Lee, saying “he would make her [Lee] disappear. He would kill her,” according to the filing. That information is the basis for the so-called Brady violation.

Chaudry, an author, had written about the so-called Brady violations and other suspects in her book, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. With the potential of the new trial, Chaudry said the opportunity to return to court and have a fair shot at justice is all she could have asked for.

“It’s what he did not get when he was 17,” she said. “We know he’s innocent.”

The investigation also turned up several pieces of new information that may have been persuasive for Syed’s defense, according to the motion.

Prosecutors wrote one of the alternative suspects was violent toward a woman and “forcibly confined her” before Syed’s trial. After Syed’s trial, one of the suspects attacked a woman in her vehicle and was convicted of that crime. One of the alternative suspects was convicted in connection to multiple rapes and sexual assaults, conducted in a “systemic, deliberate and premeditated way.”

While investigating Lee’s homicide, Baltimore police identified one of the people described in the motion as a suspect. But prosecutors now say the suspect was improperly cleared by investigators based on faulty polygraph tests.

The new probe led prosecutors to determine the cellphone call evidence that was used against Syed wouldn’t stand up in court today. Furthermore, Mosby’s office found two witnesses who testified at Syed’s trial to be inconsistent and the previous misconduct of one homicide detective in Syed’s case contributed to a wrongful conviction in a separate 1999 murder case.

At the request of prosecutors and Syed’s attorney, a judge in March ordered several pieces of evidence collected during the investigation of Lee’s death were sent to a lab in California to undergo new DNA tests. Some DNA tests have not yet been conducted, but the results for the completed examinations have turned out to be inconclusive, according to the motion filed Wednesday.

The push for new forensic testing came about because Suter had been working with the prosecutor’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit after Maryland passed its Juvenile Restoration Act, which enables those convicted of crimes before they turn 18 to petition the court for a sentence modification.

In the motion, Feldman wrote that the development was part of Mosby’s office’s effort to prioritize “justice, fairness and the integrity of the criminal justice system” over convictions.

Chaudry said it was refreshing to see a prosecutor work toward seeking true justice, rather than solely being an adversary.

“State’s Attorney Mosby has a strong record of exonerating innocent people,” Chaudry said.

Syed has not been exonerated, but Chaudry said Wednesday’s filing is in the same vein as Mosby’s office’s work with the Innocence Project.

Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, credited Mosby’s “tremendous amount of courage” for moving to vacate Syed’s conviction.

“It’s been a long, overdue battle to try to correct a tremendous miscarriage of justice,” Colbert told The Sun. “I’m absolutely thrilled at the possibility that Adnan will get a new trial and be vindicated once and for all.”

But Colbert and Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue denounced the prosecutors on the case years ago.

“Prosecutors are held to the highest duty as ministers of justice to disclose evidence that tends to establish the innocence of an accused and it’s a shameful exercise of discretion when prosecutors fail to honor their ethical duty,” Colbert said.

In a statement released by her office, Dartigue said an alternative suspect being kept secret for more than 20 years should “shock the conscience.”

“This is a true example of how justice delayed is justice denied,” Dartigue’s statement read. “An innocent man spends decades wrongly incarcerated, while any information or evidence that could help identify the actual perpetrator becomes increasingly difficult to pursue.”

Authorities will continue to investigate Lee’s killing “with all available resources,” the motion says.

But prosecutors wrote that continuing to incarcerate Syed amounted to a “miscarriage of justice.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lea Skene contributed to this article.