Adnan Syed has been released from prison. What role did “Serial” play?

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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 murdering his ex-girlfriend walked out of a Baltimore courthouse on Monday due to a rare confluence of people and politics: knowledgeable friends dedicated to his cause, a prosecutor with a defense story, a new juvenile sentencing law, and the millions of podcast listeners who drew attention to inconsistencies in the 1999 trial that put Syed in jail.

Experts and lawyers involved in the case say Syed’s story reveals the challenges of trying to address potential injustice in the criminal justice system, how easy it is for people to spend their lives wrongly 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 the ‘Serial’ podcast, released from prison

Syed, 42, has maintained his innocence since his arrest for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when he was only 17 years old. 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 shortcomings in the way prosecutors handed evidence to defense attorneys could have affected the outcome of his case. Baltimore City State’s attorney now has 30 days to decide whether to try Syed again or drop the case altogether. In the meantime, Syed is at home under electronic surveillance. Videos Monday night showed him smiling, eating leftovers from a fridge.

Syed’s release was not universally welcomed. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said in court that he felt “betrayed” by the judge’s motion from the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office to quash Syed’s conviction. He said he was open to further investigation, but it was “really hard” for his family to know that “there might be someone out there for killing my sister”.

The 23 years between the ruling that incarcerated him and the one that freed him were fraught with setbacks and moments of despair for Syed and his defense team. When Syed’s attorney first sought post-conviction relief a decade after the original ruling, his attorney at the time, Justin Brown, said he had trouble reaching a woman, Asia McClain. , whom he believed to be an alibi witness who could help free his client. brown said Rabia Chaudry, a close family friend of Syed and a law student at the time, had previously visited McClain and asked him to sign an affidavit saying she had seen Syed at the library at the time of Lee’s murder. .

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

A judge was ultimately unresponsive to the affidavit, Brown said. Brown said he remembers walking out of an empty courtroom with Syed’s mother. “She’s a hopeful, optimistic, never giving up, amazing woman, and I didn’t know what to say to her,” he said. “I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of winning at that time.”

Then Chaundry meets Sarah Koenig, an investigative journalist who has taken 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 broke 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 around the world. On blogs where web sleuths discussed theories. In restaurants, pubs and courtrooms 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 breathed new life into Syed’s legal case. Brown, who said he and Chaudry made the decision to hand over his legal cases to Koenig, listened to the podcast, heard McClain speak and then realized she might be willing to help. He contacted her. One day, unlike all those years ago, she returned her call.

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

Brown asked the court to reopen the hearing after sentencing, citing new information from McClain. A judge agreed, and in 2016 Brown returned to court for a hearing. This time the room was full.

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 eventually overturned that decision. In 2019 — despite “Serial,” a four-part HBO documentary and two separate books about the case — it looked like Syed might actually be spending his final years behind bars.

Syed had decided to reject a plea offer that would have freed him from prison in just four years – if he admitted guilt, Brown said. In 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided not to hear Syed’s case, seemingly ending his decade-long battle for a new trial.

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

But changes to Maryland’s criminal justice system gave Syed another chance.

First, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed judges to grant requests to quash convictions “in the interest of justice and fairness”. Then Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby created a Sentence Review Unit. Mosby hired Becky Feldman, a former public defender, as chef.

In October 2021, the Juvenile Restoration Act took hold in the state — allowing prosecutors to seek sentence reductions for those who have served at least 20 years in prison for crimes committed before age 18. That month, Syed’s attorneys turned over his case to Mosby’s office.

The ensuing investigation uncovered new evidence showing that prosecutors knew of two other possible suspects, including one who had a motive for killing Lee, and failed to pass 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 — disputed that, calling claims that prosecutors don’t did not turn over evidence to Syed’s defense as it should have been “incorrect”.

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

This discovery, along with others suggesting unreliable evidence and testimony, informed Mosby’s decision to file a motion to have Syed’s conviction overturned.

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

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