Prosecutors Move to Vacate ‘Serial’ Murder Conviction
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Baltimore prosecutors asked a judge on Wednesday to vacate Adnan Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee — a case that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial.”
Baltimore’s state’s attorney filed a motion in circuit court, saying a lengthy investigation conducted with the defense had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the conviction of Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend.
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“The motion filed today supports a new trial for Syed based on a nearly year-long investigation that revealed undisclosed and newly-developed information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone tower data,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office said in a news release.
Syed, 42, has maintained his innocence for decades and captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of the “Serial” podcast focused on the case and raised doubts about some of the evidence, including cellphone tower data.
Sarah Koenig (creator of Serial) attends Time 100 Gala 2015 in New York City, April 21, 2015.
Taylor Hill—Getty Images
Prosecutors on Wednesday said they weren’t asserting that Syed is innocent, but they lacked confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and recommended he be released on his own recognizance or bail.
“We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in results of the first trial, would be unjust,” Mosby added.
The state’s attorney’s office said if the court grants its motion it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, and his convictions would be vacated, but the case would remain active.
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“Whether the State ultimately continues with a trial in this matter or dismisses the charges will depend on the outcome of the ongoing investigation,” the state’s attorney’s office said.
Prosecutors stated that a second investigation of the case found evidence suggesting the involvement of other suspects than Syed. The two suspects may be involved individually or may be involved together, the state’s attorney’s office said.
One of the suspects had threatened Lee, saying “he would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her,” according to the filing.
At Lee’s Baltimore memorial service, Md. on March 11, 1999, a collage of photos of Hai Min Lee (and her friends) was displayed.
Elizabeth Malby—Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, who is Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”
Prosecutors stated that the suspects, who were identified at the time the investigation began, were neither properly excluded nor revealed to the defense.
Prosecutors also said that the investigation found another document in the trial file that contained information from which the suspect could have derived a motive to hurt the victim. The information about the threat and motives to harm could have provided a basis for the defense and was not disclosed to the trial nor the post-conviction defense counsel, the state’s attorney’s office said.
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According to the prosecution, new information also revealed that one of these suspects had been convicted in the attack on a woman riding in her vehicle and one was convicted in the sexual assault of serial rape.
The state’s attorney’s office declined to release information about the suspects, due to the ongoing investigation.
Prosecutors also noted unreliable cellphone data used during Syed’s court case to corroborate his whereabouts on the day of the crime. The notice on the records specifically advised that the billing locations for incoming calls “would not be considered reliable information for location.”
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“Evidence proved that the State should not have relied on the incoming call evidence,” the state’s attorney’s office said.
Syed, then 18, was strangled to death by Lee in 1994. She spent over 20 years in prison. She was buried in Baltimore a few weeks later.
More than a decade later, the popular “Serial” podcast revealed little-known evidence and attracted millions of listeners, shattering podcast-streaming and downloading records.
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.
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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. Syed was found to have waived the claim of ineffective counsel.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
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