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Adnan Syed is free — and it only took years of criminal justice reform

Adnan Syed leaves the courthouse after being released from prison Monday, September 19, 2022, in Baltimore. | Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The knotty but triumphant role true crime played in the case of Adnan Syed, subject of the 2014 podcast Serial.

In a shocking new twist to one of the most notable true crime cases of the modern era, a Baltimore judge has vacated the conviction and ordered the immediate release of Adnan Syed, 41, from prison. Syed has maintained his innocence while serving 23 years of a life sentence for the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee — the case that turned the 2014 podcast Serial into a podcasting phenomenon.

The decision comes as part of a new investigation spearheaded by the state as part of ongoing citywide and statewide efforts to create significant criminal justice reform — a reform arguably galvanized by a cultural wave of interest in true crime that began because of Serial itself.

The investigation revealed serious errors in Syed’s original court case, including multiple Brady violations, meaning that the prosecution refused to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense prior to Syed’s trial.

In light of this new evidence, brought forth not by the defense but by the prosecution in an extremely rare moment of self-reflection, Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned the verdict and gave the state 30 days in which to drop the existing charges against Syed or schedule a retrial.

At the time of Lee’s murder, Syed, then 17, was considered a beloved and upstanding member of his Baltimore Muslim community. Following the murder of Lee, his high school ex-girlfriend, Syed was put through a trial — thoroughly excavated by journalist Sarah Koenig in Serial, as well as by advocates like Rabia Chaudry — that relied heavily on circumstantial evidence, shaky testimony from Syed’s drug dealer, and now-infamous cell phone tower records whose accuracy has been hotly debated. Syed’s defense was further hampered by what was generally believed to have been an inadequate defense counsel who failed to investigate at least one potential alibi witness on his behalf, and who was later disbarred.

Advocates for Syed’s innocence have frequently complained that police did not do enough to identify other potential suspects in the case. However, the new motion to vacate, presented to the court on September 14 by prosecuting attorney Becky Feldman, revealed that to the contrary, police had two strong alternate suspects. They simply withheld that information from the defense.

The prosecution is required, by law, to turn over any and all evidence it has in a trial that could be substantially favorable to the defense. In criminal justice lingo, any failure to turn over this kind of information is an extremely serious form of misconduct known as a Brady violation. The reason Brady violations are treated so seriously is that if the defense doesn’t know evidence exists, it can’t use that evidence in its favor, or even request it from the prosecution. And since the prosecution is the side getting most of its information directly from the police investigation, it has a crucial responsibility to make everything that investigation uncovered available to the defendant. In Syed’s case, the prosecution sat on not one, but two different potential alternate suspects — one of whom, according to the new motion to vacate, allegedly threatened to kill Lee shortly before her death.

Syed has had a long road to freedom

It’s safe to say that many people familiar with Syed’s case — and Serial had a peak audience of over 2 million people per episode, with millions more having listened to it in the years since — believe that, regardless of his guilt or innocence, his trial was unfair and shrouded in plenty of reasonable doubt. Popular sentiment in favor of Syed’s innocence has helped fuel a long campaign of advocacy on his behalf. But his numerous appeals and motions for a new trial have suffered multiple setbacks. An appellate court first granted Syed a new trial in 2016, on his very last appeal — but despite this ruling being upheld in 2018, in 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected it.

The court did so despite agreeing with Syed’s claim that his defense attorney should have interviewed his potential alibi witness, who came forward during the Serial podcast to reveal that Syed’s attorney had never responded to her letter offering to testify on his behalf. The Appeals court nonetheless found the conviction to be based on “substantial direct and circumstantial evidence pointing to Mr. Syed’s guilt,” and voted in a 4-3 decision to uphold Syed’s conviction. Syed’s attorneys appealed this decision to the US Supreme Court, only for the court to decline to hear the case that same year.

That might have been the end of the road for Syed’s case, had the Maryland office that originally prosecuted him — and which then spent years fighting the reversal of his conviction — not had a change of heart. While the about-face might seem sudden, it actually came about as part of two separate years-long efforts to correct disturbing pieces of Maryland’s criminal justice system. Indeed, the new investigation into Syed’s case speaks to a huge and heartening sea change in the way criminal cases are being approached in Baltimore.

The years-long efforts to reform Maryland’s criminal justice system

Ideally, the goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for relief. Between 1969 and 1994 in Maryland, this is more or less what happened: Over those 25 years, 181 inmates serving life sentences were paroled by the state of Maryland, with three governors approving their release. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s however, across America, growing crime statistics fueled a drastic cultural shift in attitude toward criminal incarcerations. This shift arguably peaked in 1995, when Princeton public policy professor John J. Dilulio Jr. minted the racially charged word “superpredator” to describe a special new terrifying class of remorseless urban teenager supposedly capable of inflicting extreme violence at scale.

This idea was a completely unfounded racist moral panic with no basis in reality. But the impact of the “superpredator” myth on lawmakers was profound, and may have directly impacted the Maryland governors who were responsible for granting parole to incarcerated criminals. That shift from leniency to punishment was severe: From 1995 to 2015, three different Maryland governors summarily rejected every single recommendation for parole they received — 24 in total, including juvenile offenders and adults — without explanation. “No individual in Maryland sentenced to life with parole as a juvenile has been approved for release in over twenty years,” asserted one 2017 appeal.

Beginning in 2015, the Baltimore prosecutor’s office joined with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and the ACLU in joint efforts to secure the release of four inmates who’d had their paroles approved and then repeatedly rejected by the governors of the state, some while serving nearly four decades in prison. This effort ultimately led to the overturning of the constitutional statute granting governor’s the right to single-handedly deny parole — a huge win for the justice system.

It also led to a sustained effort within the Baltimore prosecutor’s office to amend harsh sentences. In December 2020, prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, leading a growing trend in cities around the country, created a new Sentencing Review Unit of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office to carefully re-examine and reconsider whether the sentences of incarcerated criminals are too extreme, and to weigh circumstances that might contribute to their rehabilitation and release. Any inmate over the age of 60 as well as any inmate sentenced for a crime committed as a juvenile who’d served 25 years or more was eligible to apply for relief through the unit, as well as any inmate who was at high risk from Covid-19. The unit formed with Becky Feldman as the chief officer and immediately got results: A week after it opened, Maryland’s longest-serving female inmate was freed. Eraina Pretty had served 42 years in prison for a crime she committed when she was just 18.

That all brings us back to Adnan Syed. Shortly after it was formed, Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, appealed for sentencing relief for Syed through the Sentencing Review Unit. However, the prosecutor’s office under Mosby didn’t merely agree to re-examine the appropriateness of Syed’s sentence; they agreed to re-examine his conviction altogether.

They were able to do this because of another crucial element of criminal justice reform in the state. While all this was happening, Baltimore was simultaneously reeling from an extensive federal investigation, begun in 2016, into ongoing corruption by the Baltimore Police Department, including a deeply dirty gun task force that falsified evidence and lied on the witness stand, among many other corrupt actions.

The subsequent justice reform efforts in the wake of the investigation included the passage of a 2019 statute allowing criminal convictions secured due to testimony from the corrupt gun task force officers to be vacated after review. The fallout from this statute was big: 153 convictions were immediately thrown into question because of it.

But the statute also went further: It also allowed re-examination into other criminal trials where “new evidence has called into the integrity of the conviction.” That opened the door for the sentencing unit to take another look at Syed’s case. The subsequent investigation lasted nearly a year and uncovered not only the Brady violations but “significant reliability issues” concerning key pieces of evidence that were presented at Syed’s original trial.

Justice for Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed? It’s more likely than you think

We don’t know much about the two alternate suspects named in the prosecution’s new motion to vacate. But we do know that two different men apparently had a stated motive to harm Hae Min Lee. One of these men had warned that he would make her “disappear.” Neither of these suspects were ever turned over to the defense despite repeated requests from the defense for information throughout the trial.

Astonishingly, the new investigation also revealed that Lee’s car, found after her death, was parked directly behind the house of a close relative of one of the alternate suspects.

The prosecution’s motion to vacate also marks the first time that the state admitted how flimsy the case against Syed was to begin with. Despite the Appeals court’s assertion of substantial evidence, the prosecutor’s motion held that the evidence against Syed was “not overwhelming and was largely circumstantial.”

Another hugely positive development in the case is the prosecution’s admission that one of the alternate suspects should not have been cleared from suspicion to begin with. The suspect was written off because they took a polygraph test, which even in 1999 were not admissible in court. Polygraphs, despite their nickname, are not “lie detectors” because all they can do is measure stress levels. Their interpretations are completely subjective and unscientific, and they should never be considered as relevant evidence in any criminal investigation. The prosecution’s acknowledgment that the use of a polygraph was a hindrance in Syed’s case is a small but crucial bit of justice, and hopefully will help lead to less reliance on polygraphs in general from law enforcement.

In the wake of these new revelations, the Baltimore police department has pledged to re-open its original investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee. This, again, is a crucial step forward in the relationship between the Baltimore justice system and the truth; too often in criminal cases like these, we see refusals from both prosecutors and police to admit that they may have gotten the wrong perpetrator and a refusal to reinvestigate an old case. But not this time.

As for Syed, while the prosecutor didn’t assert his innocence, it seems likely, given the renewed investigation into Lee’s death, that Mosby will choose not to pursue a retrial against him. If that happens, not only will Syed finally be free after nearly a quarter century, but his case will truly be one for the record books: a remarkable and rare example of delayed justice finally overcome thanks primarily to a system-wide wave of reform.

In short, Syed’s vacated conviction is a testament not only to the relentless efforts of his supporters, and not only to the merits of his particular case, but of the far-reaching impact that broad changes in the criminal justice system can have on the lives of individuals.

That’s all to say that there’s no room for a narrative as simple as “Serial saved Adnan Syed,” but the role of true crime in this case — and this case's role in the growth of true crime — is still worth pausing to consider. The change in attitude evinced by Baltimore’s prosecution throughout the second wave of this case both represents and reflects a huge cultural shift in attitudes toward criminal prosecutions. The advent of the true crime trend has made millions of Americans more aware than ever of the limits and flaws of the justice system. True crime fans across the country are now loud advocates for thorough investigations, for throwing out junk techniques like polygraphs, for re-opening cold cases, for rehabilitating inmates rather than punishing them. Because of Serial, other journalist-led true crime podcasts have had a direct impact on the cases they’ve investigated — like In the Dark, which helped free Curtis Flowers from death row in 2019. It’s not an exaggeration to say that all that change has happened in part directly because of Adnan Syed and the impact that Serial had on our cultural understanding of the justice system.

So when we take a broad look at the impact Maryland’s criminal justice system reform, and the direct impact it just had on Adnan Syed’s incarceration, we also face the startling realization that perhaps Adnan Syed himself, and the huge profound cultural impact of his case, directly impacted Maryland’s broad criminal justice reform.

That somehow makes this ending to Serial, one of the biggest true crime phenomenons of the century, feel all the more fitting.

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