Case Studies
Adnan Syed Vacated From Murder Conviction After 20 Years

Adnan Syed Vacated From Murder Conviction After 20 Years

A Maryland judge on Monday vacated the 1999 murder conviction of Adnan Syed after prosecutors said there were grave problems with his trial, including two other possible suspects in the killing of his ex-girlfriend who were never disclosed to the defense. Adnan Syed was 19 when he was sentenced to life in prison for the death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose body was found buried in the woods in 1999. 

Adnan and Lee were seniors at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County in January 1999 when she disappeared. Her strangled body was discovered in a city forest three weeks later.

The case gained national attention when the podcast “Serial” raised doubts about his guilt. More than a decade after Syed was sent to prison, Rabia Chaudry, a Baltimore-based lawyer and family friend of the Syed’s, emailed a journalist named Sarah Koenig and asked her to re-investigate Lee’s murder.

That email helped launch the first season of the podcast Serial. The show premiered in autumn 2014 and each episode tried to piece together a timeline of what happened the night Lee was killed. In 2015, Syed was granted a new trial based, in part, on new evidence uncovered while making Serial.

However, a judge denied his request for bail. He remained imprisoned for years as his legal team argued for a new trial and tried to appeal his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court.

In March 2022, Syed and prosecutors filed a joint motion for post-conviction DNA testing, saying that since the crime occurred more than two decades ago, DNA testing has changed and improved drastically.

The motion asked that the victim’s clothing be tested for touch DNA, which was not available at the time of trial. They said, items now being tested were not previously tested in 2018, when the Baltimore City Police Lab tested various items for DNA with the exception of the victim’s fingernail clippings

In the 2019 HBO docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” an attorney for Syed said his client’s DNA was not found on any of the 12 samples retrieved from the victim’s body and car. That testing was not part of the official investigation by authorities.

Attorneys for Syed brought the case to the attention of the sentencing review unit in April 2021, when they identified significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence at trial.

Prosecutors said that they had found new information about two alternative suspects, whom they have not named, including one who had threatened to kill Lee, and both of whom have a history of violent crimes against women. Their identities were known to the original prosecutors but not disclosed to the defence as required by law.

The re-investigation of the case revealed evidence about the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed, including a person who said they would make Lee “disappear” and that “he would kill her”. However, Syed’s attorneys said he and his legal team were unaware that information existed until this year.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn said she was vacating his conviction “in the interest of fairness and justice”, adding the state had failed to share evidence that could have helped his defence at trial.  

Following the judge’s ruling Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said that, “We’re not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent, but we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice he is entitled to a new trial.”

When Adnan Syed was arrested he was 19 years old and now he is 42 years old. He has been imprisoned for 23 years. 

Maryland public defender Natasha Dartigue in a news release called the case a true example of how the delay has denied justice. An innocent man spent decades wrongly incarcerated, while any information or evidence that could help identify the actual perpetrator becomes increasingly difficult to pursue.

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