The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Adnan Syed was released from prison. What role did ‘Serial’ play?

Adnan Syed smiles and waves as he exits the courthouse. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

He was the star of one of the most well-known true crime podcasts in the world. But it took more than “Serial” to free Adnan Syed.

The Maryland man convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend walked out of a Baltimore courthouse on Monday because of a rare confluence of people and policy: savvy friends devoted to his cause, a prosecutor with a history doing defense work, a new law around juvenile sentences, and the millions of podcast listeners who called attention to inconsistencies in the trial that put Syed in prison.

Experts and attorneys involved in the case say that Syed’s story reveals the challenges of trying to address potential injustice in the criminal legal system, how easy it is for people to wrongly spend their lives behind bars, and how public scrutiny can change the course of a case.

“The thing about these convictions that are so old is that they die in the dark,” said Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney. “They need light. They need oxygen.”

Adnan Syed, featured in ‘Serial’ podcast, released from prison

Syed, 42, has maintained his innocence since he was arrested in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when he was just 17. He was accused of strangling Lee, then 18, and burying her in a nearby park. He was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison.

On Monday, a judge overturned that conviction — ruling that deficiencies in how prosecutors had turned over evidence to defense attorneys could have affected the outcome of his case. The Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office has 30 days to decide whether it will retry Syed or drop the case altogether. In the meantime, Syed is home on electronic surveillance. Videos on Monday night showed him smiling, eating leftovers from a fridge.

Syed’s release has not been universally welcome. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said in court that he felt “betrayed” by the state’s attorney’s office motion, granted by the judge, to vacate Syed’s conviction. He said that he was open to further investigation but that it was “really tough” for his family to know that there “could be someone out there free for killing my sister.”

The 23 years between the ruling that incarcerated him and the one that set him free were riddled with setbacks and moments of despair for Syed and his defense team. When Syed’s attorney first filed for a post-conviction relief a decade after the original ruling, his attorney at the time, Justin Brown, said he struggled to reach a woman, Asia McClain, who he believed was an alibi witness who could help free his client. Brown said Rabia Chaudry, a close family friend of Syed’s and a legal student at the time, had previously visited McClain and asked her to sign an affidavit saying she had seen Syed at the library at the time of Lee’s slaying.

McClain could not be reached for comment but said on Twitter that she was “taking this time to reflect on and compose my thoughts in a manner that is consistent with all of the many emotions I have surrounding this case.” Chaudry did not respond to requests for comment.

A judge was ultimately unmoved by the affidavit, Brown said. Brown said he remembers walking out of an empty courtroom with Syed’s mother. “She is this very hopeful, optimistic, never quit, amazing woman, and I didn’t know what to tell her,” he said. “I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of winning at that point.”

Then Chaundry met Sarah Koenig, an investigative journalist who took an interest in the case. Koenig told Syed’s story in a 12-part series that revealed new details about his case, and in the process, captured the public’s attention. “Serial,” which premiered in 2014, quickly shattered records with hundreds of millions of downloads and ushered in a new era of true-crime podcasts.

Suddenly, Syed’s story was everywhere. In group text conversations across the world. On blogs where web sleuths discussed theories. In restaurants and pubs and courtrooms all across Maryland, where Brown said he was suddenly recognized for his association with the man accused of killing Lee.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of how the system works,” said Ross Montgomery, a Kansas native who started listening to “Serial” when it debuted and continued to follow the case closely.

The series also gave new life to Syed’s legal case. Brown, who said he and Chaudry made the decision to hand over his legal files to Koenig, listened to the podcast, heard McClain speak and realized then that she might be willing to help. He reached out to her. One day, unlike all those years ago, she returned his call.

“I always get asked the question, ‘Did ‘Serial’ help the case?’ ” he said. “It absolutely did help. It brought us Asia McClain, which kept this thing alive.”

Brown asked the court to reopen the post-conviction hearing, citing new information from McClain. A judge agreed, and in 2016, Brown returned to court for a hearing. This time, the room was packed.

Still, Syed remained incarcerated for years, as his case cascaded through Maryland’s court system. A judge once granted a new trial, but the state’s highest court ultimately reversed that decision. In 2019 — despite “Serial,” a subsequent four-part documentary on HBO and two separate books on the case — it seemed as if Syed might, in fact, spend his remaining years behind bars.

Syed had decided to reject a plea offer that would have released him from prison in just four years — if he admitted guilt, Brown said. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing Syed’s case, ostensibly ending his decade-long battle for a new trial.

“I was, personally, haunted by the decision not to take the plea,” Brown said. “Despite trying to put on a brave face publicly, I thought in all likelihood that was the end of the road.”

But changes to the criminal legal system in Maryland gave Syed another chance.

First, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed judges to grant requests to vacate convictions “in the interest of justice and fairness.” Then, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby created a Sentencing Review Unit. Mosby tapped Becky Feldman, a former public defender, as its chief.

In October 2021, the Juvenile Restoration Act took hold in the state — allowing prosecutors to request reductions in sentences for those who served at least 20 years in prison for crimes committed under 18. That month, Syed’s attorneys delivered his case to Mosby’s office.

The subsequent investigation uncovered new evidence that showed prosecutors had known of two other possible suspects, including one who had a motive to kill Lee, and had failed to hand over information to defense attorneys. Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) — whose office has previously defended the handling of Syed’s case in court proceedings — has disputed that, calling the allegations that prosecutors did not hand over evidence to Syed’s defense as they should have “incorrect.”

According to court filings, one of the suspects had threatened to make Lee “disappear” and “kill her.” The filing also alleged one “engaged in multiple instances of rape and sexual assault,” and one had relatives who lived near the area where Lee’s car was found. It does not differentiate between the suspects.

That discovery, along with others suggesting unreliable evidence and witness testimony, informed Mosby’s decision to file a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

In court days later — or 23 years later — a judge ordered Syed’s shackles removed.

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