Adnan Syed is a free man — for now.
A judge in Baltimore on Monday vacated the murder conviction of the now-41-year-old, who was the subject of the 2014 genre-defining true crime podcast Serial. According to reporters in the room, she ordered that his shackles be removed and he be released under home detention. Video from outside the courthouse then showed him leaving by car.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had just started a press conference on the courthouse steps when Syed was escorted away. Prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether they will try him again or drop the charges; Mosby on Monday declined to say definitively whether there would be a new trial.
“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,” she said.
Syed had served 23 years of a life sentence for the strangling death of his 18-year-old girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, when he was 17. Before Syed was freed, Hae Min’s brother Young Lee, who said he did not receive enough notice to attend the hearing in person, addressed the court via Zoom.
“This is not a podcast for me,” Lee tearfully told the court, according to the Baltimore Banner. “This is real life, a never-ending nightmare for 20 years. … Every day when I think it's over... or it's ended, it always comes back. It's killing me,” he said, the Baltimore Sun reported. “It's really tough.” Although he doesn’t oppose the investigation, Lee said he felt “betrayed” by prosecutors.
In an exceedingly rare move, prosecutors had asked for Syed’s release last week, saying that the identification of two “alternative suspects” and other evidence had not been disclosed to the defense and prevented him from receiving a fair trial. Syed’s first trial, in December 1999, was declared a mistrial after jurors overheard the judge call Syed’s defense attorney a liar. Two months later, his second trial ended with his conviction of Lee’s murder, along with kidnapping and robbery, and he received a life sentence plus 30 years.
“Twenty-three years later, we now know what Adnan and his loved ones have always known: that Adnan’s trial was profoundly and outrageously unfair,” Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and the director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, said after the hearing.
She also addressed the Lee family: “Equally tragic, the family of the victim in this case, Hae Min Lee, recently had to learn that justice, in fact, has not yet been done for their daughter. To Hae’s family: you have endured the unimaginable and you have my deepest sympathy.”
Prosecutor Becky Feldman, who filed the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, detailed “an abundance of issues that give an overwhelming cause for concern” during her monthslong investigation. In addition to the Brady violation — not handing over evidence to the defense — and alternative suspects, Feldman cited inconsistencies in the testimony of Jay Wilds, the original prosecutors’ star witness; unreliable cellphone location data that the state said implicated Syed; and allegations of misconduct by a detective investigating the case.
The hit Serial podcast reexamined the case at the urging of Syed’s childhood friend, Rabia Chaudry, a decadeslong advocate for his innocence. It became an unprecedented hit and spawned a tidal wave of true crime podcasts, docuseries, and books. Chaudry also went on to write a bestselling book on the case, Adnan’s Story, that became the basis for the 2019 HBO docuseries The Case Against Adnan Syed, and she cocreated the Undisclosed podcast.
Chaudry and others’ advocacy efforts have been instrumental in a number of legal actions in Syed’s case. In fact, his conviction was vacated once before, in 2018; it was reinstated a year later. In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. But this year, in a bid to have his sentence reduced, prosecutors agreed with Syed to conduct new DNA tests on evidence collected in the original investigation.
In a nod to the #FreeAdnan campaign she launched years ago, Chaudry tweeted, “We did it. We FREED ADNAN!”
Though prosecutors have agreed the system had failed Syed, a debate continues to rage over whether he is responsible for Lee’s death. Critics have accused Chaudry and Serial host Sarah Koenig of significant omissions and “cherry-picking” details in the case. On Reddit, the hub for lively true crime discussion and debate, factions of “guilters” and “innocenters,” and, later, conspiracy theorists, formed. Things became especially contentious after enterprising redditors obtained a trove of court documents — portions of which Chaudry and Koenig had not shared — that included details not previously made available to the public, which many considered incriminating.
Prosecutors are now awaiting results of a new DNA analysis as they consider whether to keep pursuing the case against Syed. Mosby told reporters on Monday that it remains an “active investigation, separate and apart from the 30-day mandate.”
“Once the DNA evidence comes in,” she said, “it will be much more definitive.”