Baltimore prosecutors moved Wednesday to vacate the conviction in the murder case of Adnan Syed, whose legal saga rocketed to international prominence by way of the hit podcast “Serial.”
A year-long investigation conducted by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and Syed’s attorney found that there were two more suspects and that prosecutors neglected to disclose that information to Syed’s defense attorneys, committing what’s known as a Brady violation, according to a motion to vacate his conviction filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Prosecutors wrote they do not concede Syed, 42, is innocent, but they no longer have faith in his conviction. They asked Syed be given a new trial while the investigation into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee continues, and asked a judge to release Syed on his own recognizance pending further developments.
Lee, who had previously been in a relationship with Syed, was strangled to death and buried in a clandestine grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Syed always maintained he was innocent in his ex-girlfriend’s killing.
“The State’s Brady violations robbed the Defendant of information that would have bolstered his investigation and argument that someone else was responsible for the victim’s death…. These concerns are highlighted by the new information regarding alternative suspects, and new evidence regarding the reliability of critical evidence at trial has caused the state to lose faith in the integrity of the convictions,” Becky Feldman, chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit, wrote in the motion.
The state’s attorney’s office said it notified Lee’s family before filing the motion to vacate Syed’s sentence. Attempts to speak with Lee’s family on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, the director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, issued a statement in a press release from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Suter, who is also an assistant public defender. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”
Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s longtime friend and his de facto public advocate, said prosecutors’ motion to vacate his conviction and order a new trial is the payoff for years of work and investigation into his case.
She called the news surreal.
“This is validating,” Chaudry said. “It’s what we’ve been saying for decades.”
Authorities previously believed Lee struggled with Syed in a car before he killed her. He stood trial twice for the homicide. A jury in 2000 found Syed guilty of premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. At sentencing, the judge gave him life plus 30 years in prison.
Syed appealed again and again, with trial judges and appellate courts denying his lawyers’ claims as many times. In 2018, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals determined Syed was entitled to a new trial, only for the state’s top court to overrule the opinion the next year. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Syed’s case in 2019.
Now, prosecutors say, the approximately year-long probe revealed two alternative suspects who were known to the authorities 23 years ago but not disclosed to Syed’s defense. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys will reveal the suspects’ identities because the investigation is ongoing, according to the motion.
One of the suspects had threatened Lee, saying “he would make her [Lee] disappear. He would kill her,” according to the filing.
Chaudry, an author, had written about the so-called Brady violations in her book, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial. With the potential of the new trial, Chaudry said the opportunity to return to court and have a fair shot at justice is all she could have asked for.
“It’s what he did not get when he was 17,” she said. “We know he’s innocent.”
Chaudry credited Mosby’s office for working with the Innocence Project to move to vacate her friend’s conviction.
“State’s Attorney Mosby has a strong record of exonerating innocent people,” Chaudry said.
In the motion, Feldman wrote that the development was part of Mosby’s office’s effort to prioritize “justice, fairness and the integrity of the criminal justice system” over convictions.
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Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a statement the revelation that alternative suspects and motives were kept secret for more than 20 years should “shock the conscience.” She added that her public defenders encounter these violations regularly, and that information withheld in Syed’s case underscores the importance of prosecutors disclosing comprehensive information to defense attorneys.
“This is a true example of how justice delayed is justice denied,” Dartigue’s statement read. “An innocent man spends decades wrongly incarcerated, while any information or evidence that could help identify the actual perpetrator becomes increasingly difficult to pursue.”
This article will be updated.