More than two decades after Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison and eight years after the shaky case against him became the focus of the popular “Serial” podcast, a Baltimore judge on Monday ordered Syed’s conviction to be dropped and walked out. court a free man.
There were cheers in the court as officers released Syed’s shackles.
Syed, 41 and jailed for more than two decades, was led handcuffed into the crowded courtroom on Monday. But after Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered Syed’s conviction to be overturned, his shackles were removed and he left in a white shirt and tie. His mother and other representatives of the family left with him.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense. She ordered him to be released and held at home with GPS location monitoring. She also ordered the state to decide within 30 days whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case.
The move came after prosecutors said they no longer had faith in their original case — something many “Serial” followers have been saying for years.
The podcast’s first season, which spans 12 episodes, sparked investigations into Syed’s conviction, books, documentaries and national media coverage. The podcast ended with host, Sarah Koenig, who said she wasn’t sure who did the murder? Hae Min Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend.
That ambiguity attracted national attention as Koenig investigated egregious issues with both Syed’s defense and the prosecution’s case, examined shoddy cell phone records, inconsistent timelines, ignored witnesses and other possible suspects.
Syed was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years, after being convicted of the murder in 1999. He has maintained his innocence since he was 17.
Despite public attention, legal representation and massive advocacy to overturn Syed’s conviction, multiple appeals were dismissed and it took prosecutors years later admitting mistakes to get to this point.
Experts say the vast majority of inmates do not have such opportunities, making their struggle even more difficult.
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Adnan Syed’s case, and the doubts surrounding it, attracted national attention
The true crime frenzy surrounding Syed is one of the most talked-about examples of podcasts, TV shows, and media reports casting serious doubt on previously obscure convictions. But until recently, Syed was left in jail with few legal options.
That changed when the Baltimore District Attorney filed a motion to lift the conviction The verdict against him Wednesday, saying a lengthy investigation revealed new evidence that could undermine his 2000 murder conviction.
Syed had been battling his conviction for years when a family friend and lawyer linked him with Koenig, the future host of what would become “Serial.”
Koenig essentially revived the case in 2014 by tracking down old friends of Syed and Lee, sifting through thousands of documents and court hearings, and eventually developing an investigation that seemed to uncover multiple issues with Syed’s process.
Deirdre Enright, a law professor and founder of the Innocence Project at the UVA School of Law, said Syed would have had few options for trying to overturn his conviction without public attention.
“Adnan Syed would be nowhere if Sarah Koenig hadn’t stepped in and turned him into a national spectacle,” Enright said. “Like most, he would have been on his own.”
A 2021 Maryland law that would allow people convicted of crimes as minors to seek new sentences after 20 years in prison also helped advance his case, said Enright, who was featured on several episodes of “Serial.” .
Prosecutors said a year-long investigation into Syed’s case revealed two alternate suspects and “significant reliability issues” with evidence used to convict him.
At the very least, prosecutors asked for a new trial. The state has not yet decided whether it will seek a new trial date or dismiss the case.
Neama Rahmani, a trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said there is almost no chance that Syed will face trial again – it is more than likely that he will be released in full.
“He’s been in prison for 22 years for a crime he probably didn’t commit,” Rahmani said. “And the fact that not only did (prosecutors) ask for the release of the conviction, but for him to be released on his own admission, leads me to believe that he will not be prosecuted.”
‘Unfortunate…not uncommon’: Syed’s lengthy trial to reverse conviction
The long struggle Syed faced is not unique, said Amanda Vicary, chair and professor of psychology at Wesleyan University in Illinois.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s not at all unusual for even people who are actually innocent to spend 20 years in prison before they find someone to represent them and before all the professions and everything makes their way through the justice system,” Vicary said.
In the US, 375 people have been acquitted by TBEN testing in various types of cases since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freeing innocent people and preventing wrongful convictions. Those people served an average of 14 years per person before being released.
Syed was given new TBEN tests in 2022 using procedures not available when he was tried more than 20 years ago. Most of the tests yielded inconclusive or unusable results, says the motion filed on Wednesday.
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Despite his long wait to overturn his conviction, Syed has been given opportunities that most people in the criminal justice system don’t have, experts say, along with a hefty dose of publicity.
One way to obtain a quashed conviction is through a post-conviction attorney, something Syed has used. But once someone has been convicted, it is difficult to hire one, especially for those without money or family.
“Once you’re in jail, you don’t get a lawyer—you’re on your own,” Vicary said.
Without a post-conviction attorney, the other viable option for overturning a conviction is to seek help from organizations like the Innocence Project — but even UVAs, which have more staff than others, have waiting lists of hundreds, according to Enright.
Allowing outside influence into a courtroom directly violates the conflict code of US judges. But in a case that is wide open to the public, like Syed’s, public influence can be almost inevitable.
“They may not want to admit it, or they may not even be aware of it, but I think it’s hard to say[the public attention]isn’t affecting things in some way,” Vicary said.
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‘Serial’ ushered in a new era of true crime, but left victims behind
When Koenig came to Enright with the idea of turning “Serial” into a full-length podcast, the law professor’s first thought was that nobody cared.
“I’ve been doing this business for years… I was like, ‘Nobody cares,'” Enright said. “That’s why I have to keep doing this.”
But to Enright’s surprise, she was proved wrong—and thankfully. “Serial” is one of the most celebrated podcasts of all time: It is widely cited as the most listened to podcast in the world with more than 300 million downloads, according to “This American Life”, which produced the podcast.
Americans have been fascinated with true crime for hundreds of years, starting in the 1800s when newspapers hired crime reporters and printed sensational trials on their front pages, said Adam Golub, a professor of American studies at CSU Fullerton.
And there’s no doubt that “Serial” ushered in a new cycle of that fascination, Golub said.
“What something like ‘Serial’ has done is it has made us all de facto jurors or investigators — we become these armchair experts on these crimes who then feel like we can make up our own mind about it,” he said.
But Serial – and many other true crime productions – overwhelmingly focuses on the perpetrator and not the victim.
“This is really about the murder of someone,” he said. “Hae Min Lee is a bit overshadowed by it all.”
Syed was assigned a new trial in 2016 after a judge cast doubt on his original expert lawyer’s cross-examination about the reliability of cell tower evidence. But for Lee’s family, justice was served when he was sent to prison.
That process “reopened wounds few can imagine,” Lee’s family said in a 2016 statement.
“We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000, and we look forward to bringing this chapter to a close so we can celebrate Hae’s memory rather than the man who killed her,” they said.
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Contributions: The The Bharat Express News