Baltimore prosecutors have dropped their charges against Adnan Syed, subject of the hit 2014 podcast Serial, who was in prison for 23 years for the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. His conviction was vacated last month, and prosecutors have said they will not pursue another trial.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender announced the decision Tuesday morning, saying DNA test results had confirmed Syed’s innocence. At an afternoon press conference, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said her office had found Syed was wrongfully convicted, and she said they would support defense attorneys seeking to have Syed certified “actually innocent” by the court.
In a separate press conference, Syed’s lawyer Erica Suter said she would work with the State’s Attorney to begin that process as soon as possible. “Adnan Syed is innocent,” Suter said. “The state of Maryland has dropped the charges. Adnan Syed is free.” She extended sympathies to the Lee family. “We join in hopes that an investigation will bring them real answers and a sense of closure,” she said, before requesting privacy for Syed, who did not appear at the press conference.
Mosby said her office had received test results on Friday from a round of “touch DNA” testing on items of Lee’s clothing that had never been tested before. (The evolving and controversial technology attempts to analyze trace amounts of skin cells or other material left behind on evidence handled by suspects.) While no DNA was found on items including Lee’s skirt, pantyhose, and jacket, a mixture of multiple people’s DNA was found on both of her shoes — the same people on both shoes. “Most compellingly, Adnan Syed — his DNA was excluded,” Mosby said.
Mosby would not confirm whether the DNA profiles found on Lee’s shoes matched either of the alternative suspects recently identified in the case, saying the case remained “open and pending investigation.” She apologized to the families of Syed and Lee, and promised to use “every available resource to prosecute whoever is responsible for the death of Hae Min Lee.”
On Sept. 14, prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Syed’s 2000 conviction, citing the possibility of other suspects among other factors, including a loss of confidence in the state’s key witness and concerns about the accuracy of cell tower records, which played a major role in linking Syed to the crime.
When Syed was released from prison on Sept. 19, prosecutors had 30 days to decide whether they would try to take the case to trial again. At the time, Mosby had said that a final round of DNA testing on evidence from the 1999 homicide would determine that decision. “If that DNA comes back inconclusive, I will certify that he’s innocent,” she told a local CBS station. “If it comes back to two alternative suspects, I will certify that he’s innocent.”
Steve Kelly, a lawyer for Lee’s family, told Rolling Stone in a statement the family found out from media reports that the charges had been dropped. “The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding,” Kelly said. “By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the State’s Attorney’s Office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the State so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years. All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today’s actions robbed them of both.”
At the State’s Attorney’s Office’s press conference, Mosby said she had personally contacted Lee’s attorney on Tuesday morning to tell the family of her plans, after the court had approved her request to dismiss the charges. She said she did not hear back.
Asked why she didn’t wait until Syed’s upcoming court appearance to announce the dismissal and give the Lees’ attorney more time to respond, Mosby said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” She added, “We know his DNA evidence is not part of this case. It’s exculpatory. Why would I wait?”
According to the public defenders’ announcement, an appeal brought by the family in the Court of Special Appeals remains pending. Mosby told reporters, however, that there would be no more appeal. “The case is over,” she said.
Syed’s lawyer, Suter, said he’s been taken off of house arrest. She said he was spending Tuesday with loved ones as a free man. “He is elated, he is joyful,” she said. “He is still processing this. There have been so many ups and downs over the past 23 years…. He’s incredibly grateful for all the people who have supported him and believed in him.”
Syed had always maintained his innocence, and his case reached an international audience when the hit podcast Serial profiled it on their debut season starting in 2014. Suter said the podcast was valuable in teaching listeners about wrongful convictions. “It’s helped educate the public, and shined a light on the wrongdoing that happened to Adnan,” adding what happened to him “not unusual.”