BALTIMORE — A judge on Monday vacated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, years after the hit podcast “Serial” chronicled his case and cast doubt on his role in the 1999 slaying of former girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn said prosecutors made a compelling argument that Syed's conviction was flawed and that he should immediately go free.
Trial prosecutors did not properly turn over evidence to defense lawyers that could have helped them show someone else killed Lee, Phinn said. And evidence uncovered since the trial would have added “substantial and significant probability that the result would have been different.”
Phinn vacated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment convictions. The judge ordered Syed released without bail, to be placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring.
Moments before the ruling, prosecutor Becky Feldman said "justice and fairness" called for Syed's convictions to be tossed.
“The state has lost confidence in the integrity of this conviction and believes that it is in the interest of justice and fairness that his convictions be vacated," Feldman said.
“It is our promise that we will do everything we can to bring justice to the Lee family. That means continuing to utilize all available resources to bring a suspect or suspects to justice and hold them accountable."
Syed, who has a full beard, appeared in court wearing a long-sleeve white dress shirt, a dark tie and a traditional Muslim skullcap.
When Phinn ordered guards to “remove his shackles,” Syed's supporters inside the courtroom burst in applause.
Phinn gave the state 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial or potentially stop the case.
Outside court, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was hailing the judge's ruling when Syed stepped outside, greeted with cheers and shown into an awaiting car before he was driven off.
"We're not yet declaring Adnan Syed's innocence," Mosby told reporters. "We are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial."
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh called Mosby's allegations "incorrect."
"Neither State’s Attorney Mosby nor anyone from her office bothered to consult with either the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case or with anyone in my office regarding these alleged violations," Frosh said in a statement. "The file in this case was made available on several occasions to the defense."
Lee's brother, Young Lee, wept throughout his virtual court appearance Monday, wondering how this turn of events unfolded.
"I’ve been living with this for, like, 20-plus years, and every day when I think it’s over, whenever I think it’s over or it’s ended, it always comes back," he told the court via Zoom. "And it’s not just me. It’s killing me, and it’s killing my mother.”
Steve Kelly, a lawyer for Lee's family, asked Phinn to delay Monday's proceedings by seven days so Lee's brother could attend and address the court.
The family wasn't given enough time and didn't have an attorney to make a decision about appearing in court, Kelly said.
"To suggest that the State's Attorney's Office has provided adequate notice under these circumstances is outrageous," Kelly told the court. "My client is not a lawyer and was not counseled by an attorney as to his rights and to act accordingly."
But Phinn said the family, represented by Lee's brother in California, could easily jump on Zoom to address the court. She ordered a 30-minute delay for the brother to get to a computer so he could dial in to the hearing.
"I was kind of blindsided," Lee told the court. "I always thought the state was on my side, but out of nowhere I hear that there’s a motion to vacate judgment, and I thought, honestly, I felt betrayed.”
Hae Min Lee was 18 in 1999 when she was killed. Her body was found buried in Baltimore's Leakin Park.
Syed, now 42, was sentenced to life behind bars in 2000, and his case gained national notoriety from the 2014 podcast "Serial."
The true-crime series was the brainchild of longtime radio producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case and reporting her findings in almost real-time in hourlong segments. The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularizing podcasts for a wide audience.
The podcast's official Twitter account said Koenig was at the courthouse Monday and that a new episode of the series would be available Tuesday.
Prosecutors had relied on cellphone records that seemed to show Syed was in the vicinity of the park where Lee’s body was found. But they now question “unreliable cellphone tower data” used against Syed at trial and want to look at “two alternative suspects.”
“These suspects were known persons at the time of the investigation of the case and not properly ruled out,” according to last week’s filing by prosecutors.
Syed’s legal team has insisted that the cellphone data used against him was unreliable because carrier AT&T had said it determined only where outgoing calls were coming from, not incoming calls. The cellular evidence used against Syed centered on his phone's incoming calls, meaning his general location around the time Lee disappeared could not be verified.
Syed’s defense has also long questioned a key account by the couple’s schoolmate, Jay Wild, who testified that he was with Syed when he buried her body at the park.
Julia Jester reported from Baltimore and David K. Li from New York City.