Adnan Syed Released from Prison after Judge Vacates Murder Conviction

By Ariel Peterson


BALTIMORE, MD—After spending 23 years in prison, Adnan Syed was released this month following a Baltimore Circuit Court judge’s decision to vacate his conviction based on the State’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence at trial.


On Feb. 9, 1999, the body of Hae Min Lee was found by a maintenance worker at Leakin Park in Baltimore, Maryland. A senior at Woodlawn High School, she had been missing since Jan. 13. The cause of death was later determined to be manual strangulation.


After receiving an anonymous tip, Baltimore Police began to investigate Syed, Lee’s recent ex-boyfriend. Syed could not remember where he was at the time Lee was estimated to be killed, and without a credible alibi, Syed was arrested on Feb. 28.


The arrest was shocking news to those familiar with him. “He was like the community’s golden child,” said Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and Syed’s friend who helped bring his case to national attention.


Indeed, Syed had been an emergency medical technician, participated on the track and football teams at Woodlawn, occasionally led prayers at his mosque, and was voted prince at his junior prom.


Yet at his trial in January of 2000, the prosecution argued that Syed had a motive to murder his ex-girlfriend. Their theory of the case revolved around the fact that he was Muslim and Pakistani and his immigrant parents did not allow him to date. 


Reporter Sarah Koenig explained the State’s argument that Syed had “put everything on the line—his family, his relationships at the mosque—to run around with this girl, so that when she broke up with him 8 months later, he was left with nothing, and he was outraged.” Then, when Lee began dating an older coworker, Syed “couldn’t take it, and he killed her.” Koenig also said the State used Syed’s forbidden relationship with Lee to paint him as a liar, to establish preexisting “bad character” that would make his turn to murder believable.


The State’s lead witness was Jay Wilds, Syed’s former classmate and friend. Wilds testified that Syed told him he was going to kill Lee and that the two of them had buried her together. He also led police to Lee’s missing car. 


Corroborating Wilds’s testimony were cell phone records from the night of Jan. 13, which placed Syed at many of the locations Wilds had mentioned in the timeline of events he gave police, including at Leakin Park around 7:00 pm, the time Lee was estimated to have been buried. 


Syed received little help at trial from his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez. In his petition for post-conviction relief, Syed claimed he had received ineffective assistance of counsel, addressing the fact that Gutierrez made no attempt to contact alibi witness Asia McClain. McClain had sent letters to Syed after his conviction telling him she had seen him at the library at the time Lee was killed, though in recent years she has expressed uncertainty about Syed’s innocence.


After hearing the State produce a motive, witness testimony, and corroborating evidence, and with Syed unable to articulate an alibi, a jury found Syed guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment, and he was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.


Syed has always maintained his innocence, and with new lawyers, he appealed again and again, even asking the Supreme Court to hear his case in 2019, though they ultimately denied his petition.


Throughout it all, Syed received unwavering support from Chaudry, who had been at the forefront of the movement to exonerate him since he was arrested. It was Chaudry who first approached Koenig about the case, and Koenig’s subsequent podcast Serial in 2014 became one of the first widely popular true-crime podcasts, hooking listeners every week with new details and allowing them to speculate on their own whether Syed was really guilty.


Chaudry later created her own podcast, Undisclosed, and went on to write a book and produce an HBO documentary series about Syed’s case.


Yet despite Chaudry’s and her movement’s efforts, Syed remained behind bars.


That is, until 2021, when Maryland passed its Juvenile Restoration Act.


The new law allows those convicted as juveniles to petition the court and ask for shorter sentences. As soon as the law went into effect, Syed’s lawyer Erica Suter approached the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office asking for a review of Syed’s case.


Chief of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit Becky Feldman led the new investigation, and she began by asking for new DNA testing of Lee’s clothing and fingernails, as well as a rape kit. The results revealed no conclusive evidence linking Syed to Lee’s murder.


Reviewing the prosecution’s case at Syed’s trial, Feldman also found that neither the cell phone records nor Wilds’s testimony was reliable. 


The cell phone record issue was first raised at Syed’s post-conviction trial. Defense witness and Digital Forensics Investigator Gerald Grant said that “it is possible that an incoming call could be recorded at the last registered tower/sector and not the current one” which means that “the network cannot guarantee at the time of the incoming call that it knows exactly what tower/sector the device is listening on.”


As for Wilds, his story changed every time police interviewed him, and it only began to resemble the timeline provided by the cell phone records once he had been shown them at his second interview. Though not part of Feldman’s investigation, Koenig and her producer attempted to recreate the Jan. 13 timeline Wilds laid out for an episode of Serial and found it was impossible to be at every location Wilds mentioned within his stated timeframe. 


With the State’s two most prominent sources of evidence both debunked, its case fell apart.


But inconclusive DNA results, unreliable cell phone records, and inconsistent witness testimony had come up at one of Syed’s trials or in Koenig’s reporting before and had ultimately not been reason enough to overturn Syed’s conviction.


Everything changed when Feldman found two handwritten notes.


Buried in a box of case materials at the Maryland Attorney General’s office, the notes were written by a prosecutor after receiving two phone calls from different people, both about one of two alternate suspects that detectives had known about prior to Syed’s first trial. 


The notes revealed that the alternate suspect had a motive to kill Lee and had expressed it, with one of the notes saying the suspect “would make her disappear. He would kill her.” Feldman looked into this suspect and found the notes’ information on him to be reliable.


Furthermore, Feldman uncovered that one of the alternate suspects had known where Lee’s car was found, one had a history of sexual assault, one had assaulted a woman he had known, and one had been imprisoned for sexual assualt. The suspects are not referred to by name because the investigation is currently ongoing. 


As the new information about the alternate suspects was known to the State and never disclosed to Syed’s attorneys, it constitutes a Brady violation and is grounds for a new trial.


On Sept. 14, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, along with Feldman, filed a Motion to Vacate Syed’s conviction, and five days later, Judge Melissa Phinn granted it.


Syed has not been exonerated, nor does the State recognize his innocence, and in granting the State’s motion, Phinn ordered a new trial. Yet Mosby felt confident enough about her motion to declare, “Justice has prevailed with the outcome of today’s hearing.”


A crowd gathered around Syed, cheering wildly as he exited the courthouse, finally free after missing his senior prom, graduation, college, and over 20 years of his life.


Koenig’s response to Syed’s release was to stay humble, reminding her audience,Even on a day when the government publicly recognizes its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct, and that’s just this one case.”


But Chaudry embodied optimism, unwilling to let the Serial host undermine “the thousands of hours of work we put in to get the Juvenile Restoration Act passed in Maryland, reinvestigate the case and find new evidence, and fight for every document from the state.” 


Though Lee’s killer has yet to be found, Syed’s long-awaited release from prison creates hope that, eventually, real justice for Lee and her family may be done.

About The Author

Ariel Peterson is a second-year Political Science major and English minor at UCLA. After graduation, she is excited to attend law school. She intends on becoming a public interest lawyer to fight injustice in the criminal justice system and help people whose lives have been negatively impacted by the law.

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