BALTIMORE — Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man whose legal saga gained international fame with the popular podcast “Serial,” could face a new trial after city prosecutors found their predecessors withheld information about alternate suspects in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee .
The Baltimore state law firm moved Wednesday to lift Syed’s conviction, according to legal documents filed with the Baltimore City Circuit Court. Under the new motion, prosecutors in the case knew decades ago that another suspect was threatening to kill Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend, and failed to disclose the information to defense attorneys, known as a Brady Violation.
Lee was strangled and buried in a clandestine grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Authorities at the time believed that Syed struggled with Lee in a car before killing and dragging 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” were either involved in serial rape and assault or assaulted a woman in a vehicle, the documents show. The plaintiffs’ motion also says Lee’s vehicle was near a home associated with one of the alternate suspects.
Although the office of Baltimore state attorney Marilyn Mosby will not admit Syed, now 41, is innocent, the plaintiffs’ motion says they no longer have faith in his conviction.
“The state’s Brady violations robbed the defendant of information that would have strengthened his investigation and argument that someone else was responsible for the victim’s death,” Becky Feldman, head of the prosecution’s Sentencing Review Unit, wrote in a statement. the motion.
Syed’s attorney, Assistant State Attorney Erica Suter, responded with her own legal document in support of the plaintiffs’ motion. She also made a statement through the prosecutor’s office.
“Given the astonishing lack of reliable evidence Mr. Syed implicates, coupled with mounting evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Suter, director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Medicine. law. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and is looking forward to his day in court.”
Prosecutors asked a judge to hold a hearing, order a new trial and release Syed on his own admission pending the ongoing investigation. A judge has not yet opened a hearing for the motion to overturn Syed’s conviction, and it is the court’s decision to reverse a sentence.
Syed is currently incarcerated at the Patuxent Institution, a state prison in Jessup.
He was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 17. After 23 years behind bars, he may be allowed to go home.
His longtime friend and advocate, Rabia Chaudry, described the prosecutors’ move to withdraw his conviction as surreal. She credited years of work and research.
“This is confirmation,” Chaudry said. “We’ve been saying that for decades.”
A spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office said the office notified Lee’s family before filing the motion to have Syed’s sentence lifted. Lee’s family has the right to attend the hearing on the case, assuming the judge decides one. Attempts by The Baltimore Sun to talk to her relatives on Wednesday failed.
The development marks a dramatic turn in a legal saga that has resonated with listeners and viewers across America and beyond. In addition to This American Life’s “Serial” podcast, which has been downloaded more than 300 million times, Syed’s case was featured in an HBO documentary series and a book.
Syed was on trial twice for the murder. In 2000, a jury found him guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. When convicted, the judge gave him life plus 30 years in prison.
Syed appealed time and again, with judges and courts of appeal equally often denying his lawyers’ allegations. In 2018, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that Syed was entitled to a new trial, only for the state’s highest court to quash the opinion the following year. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
Now, prosecutors say, their roughly year-long investigation focused on two alternate suspects known to authorities 23 years ago but not disclosed to Syed’s defense. Neither the prosecutors nor defense lawyers will reveal the identity of the suspects, as the investigation, according to the motion, is still ongoing.
One of the suspects had threatened Lee, saying, “He would make her (Lee) disappear. He would kill her,” the file said.
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 ask for.
“It’s what he didn’t get when he was 17,” she said. “We know he is innocent.”
The investigation also revealed several new information that may have been conclusive to Syed’s defense, according to the motion.
Prosecutors wrote that one of the alternate suspects was violent towards a woman and “forcibly restrained her” before Syed’s trial. After Syed’s trial, one of the suspects assaulted a woman in her vehicle and was convicted. One of the alternate suspects was convicted of multiple rapes and assaults, carried out on a “systemic, intentional and premeditated basis”.
While investigating Lee’s murder, Baltimore police identified one of the people described in the motion as a suspect. But prosecutors now say the suspect was wrongly acquitted by investigators based on erroneous polygraph tests.
The new probe led prosecutors to determine that evidence from a cell phone call used against Syed would not hold up in court today. In addition, Mosby’s office found two witnesses who testified at Syed’s trial to be inconsistent and the previous misconduct of a homicide detective in Syed’s case contributed to a wrongful conviction in a separate 1999 murder trial.
At the request of prosecutors and Syed’s lawyer, a judge in March ordered that several pieces of evidence collected during the investigation into Lee’s death be sent to a California lab to undergo new TBEN testing. Some TBEN tests have not yet been conducted, but the results of the completed studies are inconclusive, according to the motion filed on Wednesday.
The push for new forensic testing came about because Suter collaborated with the prosecutor’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit after Maryland passed the Juvenile Restoration Act, which allows those convicted of crimes before they turn 18 to petition the court to amend the law. file the penalty.
In the motion, Feldman wrote that the development was part of an effort by Mosby’s office to prioritize “justice, fairness and the integrity of the criminal justice system” over convictions.
Chaudry said it was refreshing to see a prosecutor working towards seeking real justice, rather than just being an adversary.
“State Attorney Mosby has a strong track record of exonerating innocent people,” Chaudry said.
Syed has not been acquitted, but Chaudry said Wednesday’s filing is in the same vein as other work from Mosby’s office with the Innocence Project.
Douglas Colbert, a professor at the Francis King Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland, praised Mosby’s “tremendous amount of courage” for moving to override Syed’s conviction.
“It’s been a long, overdue struggle to try and right a huge miscarriage of justice,” Colbert told The Sun. “I’m absolutely thrilled at the possibility of Adnan being retried and found to be in his right once and for all.”
But Colbert and Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue also denounced prosecutors in the case years ago.
“Prosecutors have a supreme duty as attorneys to reveal evidence that can prove an accused’s innocence and it is a shameful exercise of discretion when prosecutors fail to fulfill their ethical duty,” Colbert said.
In a statement released by her office, Dartigue said an alternate suspect who has been kept a secret for more than 20 years “would shake the conscience.”
“This is a real example of how delayed justice is being denied,” Dartigue said. “An innocent man spends decades falsely imprisoned while any information or evidence that can help identify the actual perpetrator is increasingly difficult to trace.”
Authorities will continue to investigate Lee’s murder “by all means available,” the motion said.
But prosecutors wrote that continuing to detain Syed amounted to a “miscarriage of justice”.
(Baltimore Sun reporter Lea Skene contributed to this article.)