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Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ podcast to be released after judge overturns murder conviction

Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ podcast to be released after judge overturns murder conviction
‘Serial’ podcast subject Adnan Syed walks out of the Baltimore Circuit Court after a judge ordered that his murder conviction in Baltimore, Maryland, US, on 19 September 2022 be made legally void. Syed has been in prison for more than 20 years after being convicted of strangling his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo)

At the behest of prosecutors, US Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that Adnan Syed’s conviction be vacated (made legally void) as she approved the release of the 41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars.

A Baltimore, Ohio, judge on Monday ordered the release of Adnan Syed after overturning Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee — a case that was chronicled in the hit podcast Serial.

At the behest of prosecutors, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that Syed’s conviction be vacated (made legally void) as she approved the release of the 41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars.

Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed’s defence. She ordered Syed to be placed in home detention with GPS location monitoring. The judge also said the state must decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.

“All right, Mr Syed, you’re free to join your family,” Phinn said as the hearing ended.

Syed has always maintained his innocence. His case captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of Serial focused on Lee’s killing and raised doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors had used, inspiring countless dinner table debates about Syed’s innocence or guilt.

Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying that a lengthy investigation conducted with the defence had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed.

“I understand how difficult this is, but we need to make sure we hold the correct person accountable,” Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman told the judge as she described various details from the case that undermine the decades-old conviction, including flawed cellphone data, unreliable witness testimony and a potentially biased detective.

Life sentence

Syed was serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park. 

The investigation “revealed undisclosed and newly developed information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cellphone tower data”, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office said in a news release last week. The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation, but were neither properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defence, said prosecutors, who declined to release information about the suspects, due to the ongoing investigation.

Prosecutors said they weren’t asserting that Syed was innocent, but they lacked confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and recommended he be released on his own recognisance or bail. The State’s Attorney’s office had said if the motion were granted, it would in effect put Syed in a new trial status, vacating his convictions, while the case remained active.

Syed was led into the crowded courtroom in handcuffs on Monday. Wearing a white shirt with a tie, he sat next to his attorney. His mother and other family representatives were in the room, as was Mosby.

In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Syed on grounds that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.

But after a series of appeals, Maryland’s highest court, in 2019, denied a new trial in a 4-3 opinion. The Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.

The US Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.

The true-crime series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case and reporting her findings in almost real time in hour-long segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularising podcasts for a wide audience. DM

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