Baltimore prosecutors on Tuesday dropped charges against Adnan Syed in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee after DNA evidence supported his innocence, officials said.
The news comes weeks after his murder conviction was overturned.
Syed was sentenced to life behind bars in 2000 for the murder of Lee, his former girlfriend, and his case gained national attention in 2014 from the podcast “Serial."
The Baltimore City state attorney’s office confirmed Tuesday morning that the charges had been dropped.
Charges dropped after DNA testing
Baltimore City State Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference Tuesday that she dismissed the case after a "second round of touch DNA testing of items that were never tested before."
Officials tested a skirt, pantyhose, shoes and a jacket belonging to Lee, and the same "DNA mixture of multiple contributors" was found on both her shoes.
Testing did not find Syed's DNA on that evidence, Mosby said.
She explained that touch DNA, which analyzes skin cells left at crime scenes, has been used since 2003. The case was originally prosecuted in 1999, and advances in DNA technology allowed for new testing.
"My office received notice of these results Friday. This morning I personally reached out to the victim's attorney to inform Ms. Lee’s family of the DNA findings and my decision to dismiss the case," she said. "We attempted to wait for confirmation of notice before releasing anything publicly, but we still at this point have not heard back from that attorney."
Mosby said that although her administration "was not responsible" for "the pain inflicted" upon Lee's family or for Syed's wrongful conviction, "as a representative of the institution, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and apologize to the family of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed."
Mosby said that Syed should now be off house arrest and that he must undergo a certification process initiated by his attorneys to deem him innocent.
The state public defender's office also said in a statement Tuesday that DNA testing results “excluded Mr. Syed from the DNA recovered from the evidence.”
Syed’s attorney Erica Suter, the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School, said in a statement: “Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man.
“The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit,” she said.
Hae Min Lee's family 'robbed' of a voice
Lee’s family said they learned the charges had been dropped through media accounts Tuesday morning and now feel "robbed."
“The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding,” Steve Kelly, counsel for the Lee family, said in a statement, countering what Mosby said at her news conference about notifying the family.
“By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the State’s Attorney’s Office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the State so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years.
"All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today’s actions robbed them of both.”
Syed’s two-decade case
The news caps a more than two-decade saga throughout which Syed maintained his innocence.
Lee was 18 in 1999 when she was killed and her body was found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.
Syed was released from prison on Sept. 19 after city Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn said trial prosecutors did not properly turn over evidence that could have helped defense lawyers show that someone else killed Lee.
Phinn said evidence uncovered since the trial would have added “substantial and significant probability that the result would have been different.”
Prosecutor Becky Feldman said moments before the ruling, “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.”
During the trial, prosecutors relied on cellphone records that appeared to show Syed in the vicinity of the park where Lee’s body was found, but they later questioned the “unreliable cellphone tower data.”
Prosecutors also said they wanted to look at “two alternative suspects.” According to a filing last month, those suspects were “known persons” in the investigation but were “not properly ruled out.”
Syed was ultimately ordered to be released without bail and placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring.
After his conviction was overturned, the Baltimore City state attorney’s office had 30 days to weigh whether to retry him or dismiss the charges, culminating in Tuesday's decision.
Lee’s family filed an appeal after the charges were overturned, alleging the family were not given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the hearing that secured Syed's release.
The family asked the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to halt the circuit court proceedings during the appeal, and last week the state attorney general’s office joined Lee’s family in asking for the hold on Syed’s case.
The state public defender's office said the appeal is still pending.
Suter said: “While the proceedings are not completely over, this is an important step for Adnan, who has been on house arrest since the motion to vacate was first granted last month.
“He still needs some time to process everything that has happened and we ask that you provide him and his family with that space.”
However, Mosby said at her news conference Tuesday: "I've utilized my power and discretion to dismiss the case. There’s no more appeal. It’s moot. ... The case is over.”
Speaking about the DNA evidence and other potential suspects, Mosby said the investigation into Lee's murder is still open and pending.
“I’m going to put every power and resource in my means to assure justice for Hae Min Lee,” Mosby said.
Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Syed's who took the case to “Serial” podcaster Sarah Koenig, praised the news that the charges had been dropped in a statement.
“For decades now my prayer and the prayer of people who love Adnan have been not only that he is released from prison, but that he returns home with his dignity and reputation restored, his record cleared, and the killer of Hae Min Lee brought to justice,” she said. “We prayed for all of these things and God has granted nearly every prayer.”