Prosecutors say ‘Serial’ conviction should be tossed

Prosecutors in Baltimore are asking a judge to throw out the conviction of a man found guilty as a teen of killing his girlfriend more than 20 years ago, whose case was the subject of the popular 2014 podcast “Serial.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed a motion Wednesday seeking to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed, now 41, for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, and requesting that Syed be released from prison on his own recognizance as prosecutors consider whether to retry the case.

A judge will determine next steps regarding Syed’s release, a Mosby spokesperson told WTOP.



The motion points to the findings of an ongoing investigation carried out by the Baltimore prosecutor’s office, which revealed the original prosecutors relied on potentially faulty cellphone data to place Syed near the Baltimore park where Lee’s body was discovered. They also found that evidence regarding two alternative suspects was improperly withheld from defense attorneys.

In a statement, Mosby said it “would be unjust” to keep Syed behind bars when her office does not have confidence in the results of the first trial and as they continue to investigate the case.

Syed, who has maintained his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing and has now served more than 20 years.

The motion does not mean that prosecutors believe Syed is innocent, but that they now “lack confidence in the integrity of the conviction” and therefore are requesting a new trial, according to a statement from Mosby’s office.

“Since the inception of my administration, my prosecutors have been sworn to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime, but in the pursuit of justice — when the evidence exists — to correct the wrongs of the past where doubt is evident,” Mosby said in a statement. “For that reason, after a nearly yearlong investigation reviewing the facts of this case, Syed deserves a new trial where he is adequately represented and the latest evidence can be presented.”

Mosby said her office has spoken with Lee’s family and “fully understand that the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable.”

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project represent Syed. They originally brought the case to the attention of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Sentencing Review Unit for a possible change in his sentencing following the passage of a law dealing with juvenile sentences. It was during that review that additional evidence surfaced leading to a deeper review.

“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Erica Suter, the director of the Innocence Project, in a statement. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”

In the spring, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to retest DNA evidence from the case taken from Lee’s clothing for the presence of very small amounts of DNA — known as touch DNA — a method not available at the time of the original trial.

Authorities had maintained Lee struggled in a car with Syed before her death. However, while trace-level DNA was detected in some fingernail swabs and Lee’s shirt did not return results. Other items are still being tested.

The investigation also uncovered evidence about the two alternative suspects.

The two other suspects were both known to investigators at the time of the original but were not “properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense,” according to the statement from prosecutors. The other suspects have not been named.

Information in the prosecutor’s case file indicated one of the suspects, referring to Lee, said, “He would make her disappear. He would kill her.” In addition, Lee’s car was found located directly behind the house of one of the suspect’s family members.

Syed’s case was highlighted in the 2014 podcast “Serial,” which is crediting with reigniting interest in the case and leading to an explosion in true-crime podcasts.

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 U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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