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US judge tosses murder conviction of Adnan Syed of the Serial podcast

The judge ordered him released from custody and placed on home detention with an electronic tag.

Adnan Syed in 2016
Adnan Syed in 2016
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

A US JUDGE has ordered the release of a man convicted in 2000 in a murder case that was chronicled in the hit podcast Serial.

At the behest of prosecutors in Baltimore, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn ordered that Adnan Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee be vacated and she approved the release of the 41-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars.

Judge Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defence.

She ordered him released from custody and placed on home detention with an electronic tag. She also ordered the state to decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.

Syed, who always maintained his innocence, received widespread attention in 2014 when the debut season of Serial focused on Lee’s killing and raised doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors used, inspiring countless debates about Syed’s innocence or guilt.

Last week, prosecutors filed a motion saying that a lengthy investigation conducted with the defence had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the 2000 conviction of Syed, who was Lee’s ex-boyfriend.

He was serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling the 18-year-old whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park.

The investigation “revealed undisclosed and newly developed information regarding two alternative suspects, as well as unreliable cell phone tower data”, state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office said in a news release last week.

The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation, but were not properly ruled out or disclosed to the defence, said prosecutors, who declined to release information about the suspects due to the ongoing investigation.

Prosecutors said they were not asserting that Syed is innocent, but they lacked confidence “in the integrity of the conviction” and recommended he be released on his own recognisance or bail.

The state’s attorney’s office had said if the motion were granted it would effectively put Syed in a new trial status, vacating his convictions, while the case remained active.

He was led into a crowded courtroom today. He sat next to his lawyer, and his mother and other family representatives were in the room, as was Mosby.

In 2016, a lower court ordered a retrial for Syed on grounds that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, did not contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.

After a series of appeals, Maryland’s highest court in 2019 denied a new trial in a 4-3 opinion. The Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.

The US Supreme Court declined to review the case in 2019.

The true-crime podcast was the brainchild of longtime radio producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, who spent more than a year digging into Syed’s case and reporting her findings in almost real time in hour-long segments.

The 12-episode podcast won a Peabody Award and was transformative in popularising podcasts for a wide audience.

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