Serial podcast murder case: Judge overturns Adnan Syed’s conviction

The 41-year-old, who has spent more than 20 years behind bars, has been released into house arrest after prosecutors said an investigation had turned up two ‘alternative suspects’

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Adnan Syed waves as he leave a Baltimore courthoue on Monday.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

A Baltimore judge overturned on Monday the 2000 murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who was the subject of the hit podcast Serial. In 1999, Syed was sentenced for strangling and killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in a Baltimore park in Maryland. The case was investigated by journalist Sarah Koenig in Serial, which raised doubts about some of the evidence used. Eight months after the podcast went to air, Syed, now 41, has been released from prison.

The decision comes after Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office requested the conviction be vacated, saying a year-long case review had turned up two “alternative suspects” and new evidence. Judge Melissa Phinn agreed to overturn his conviction “in the interest of fairness and justice,” and set a deadline for a new trial. Syed, who is of Pakistani origin, will remain under house arrest until the prosecution decides whether to present charges again.

Syed smiled as he left the court on Monday afternoon. His family, the media and followers of Serial crowded outside the Baltimore courthouse to see him. Syed, who spent 23 years in prison, has always maintained his innocence. But his case did gain public attention until Serial was broadcast in 2014 on National Public Radio. In the 12-part podcast, Koenig reviewed in detail all the peculiarities of the case and cast doubt on the investigation and the validity of the evidence provided at trial.

Koenig spoke with Syed and his friends, as well as people who know both him and the victim. She also visited the crime scenes and questioned Syed’s lawyer, who was later disqualified for malpractice. “Sarah was at the courthouse when Adnan was released, a new episode is coming tomorrow morning,” the official Twitter account for Serial posted in a message. The first season of the podcast has been downloaded 300 million of times, mainly in the United States, but also internationally. Serial has two other seasons, which focus on other true-crime investigations.

In the wake of the podcast, Syed was granted a new trial, but the state appealed the order. He remained in prison for years as his legal team tried to fight the conviction at the US Supreme Court, which declined to review it. In 2019, Syed’s legal team tried a different tactic that proved more successful: calling on state prosecutors to reopen the investigation.

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State's Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby (c-r) speaks to the media after a judge vacated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)

After a one-year review, prosecutors concluded that two potential suspects were prematurely ruled out, including one who, according to their probe, had once said in private that he was responsible for Lee’s death. Some evidence from the original investigation, including witness statements and analysis of data and phone records, also cast doubt on the conviction. The prosecution also violated Syed’s right to defense by withholding key evidence from his lawyers that could have influenced the case.

Lee’s family – who believe he was rightfully convicted – expressed their concerns that the murder of the 19-year-old will go unpunished. Before the judge ruled on Monday, Young Lee, the victim’s brother, made an emotional plea before the court on behalf of the family: “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life – a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

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