Adnan Syed’s Life Sentence Vacated After Serving 23 Years Behind Bars

Adnan Syed leaves Cummings Courthouse after overturning conviction Photo Source: Brian Witte/AP

For over two decades, convicted murderer Adnan Syed stood behind bars for the 1999 murder of his high school classmate and ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Earlier this week, in a stunning reversal, a Baltimore judge approved a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction and set him free.

Adnan Syed, now 41 years old, was just 17 when he was arrested and began his life sentence for the death of his former high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Lee’s body was found in 1999 in a shallow grave in Baltimore Park. Following his trial, Syed was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment

At the time of the investigation and trial, prosecutors used the testimony of Syed's friend and co-defendant Jay Wilds. Wilds testified that he helped bury Lee’s body in the park. Prosecutors also used cell phone data to link Syed to the location Lee was buried at the time of the murder.

Throughout the investigation into Lee's disappearance, and during the 23 years Syed spent behind bars, he maintained his innocence that he did not kill his former girlfriend. It wasn’t until 2014 that his case was thrust into the national spotlight after the wildly popular podcast “Serial” cast doubts about the events leading up to Lee's murder and how authorities investigated the case.

The 12-episode podcast offered a detailed and extensive look at all the individuals who were involved, played a role, or knew Syed and Lee at the time. The case also gave an in-depth glimpse of Syed’s legal team and the many complications, mistakes, and miscommunications that arose during his trial.

The podcast, along with nationwide interest in the case, is likely to have played a part in the stunning reversal which secured Syed’s freedom earlier this week.

The motion was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court by both the prosecution and Syed's defense team. The motion asked the court to vacate the conviction with the potential of a new trial to take place instead. The prosecution explained that “the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction” and that it had “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” that were used to secure the conviction against Syed in the first place.

Among those reliability issues were the cell phone tower data that helped convict Syed of the crime. The prosecution was also clear in stating that the motion was not an indication of Syed's innocence. Baltimore City's State Attorney, Marilyn J. Mosby, explained that prosecutors were waiting on an analysis of DNA evidence that would determine whether or not the charges against Syed would be dismissed, or whether he'll stand to face a new trial.

The motion to vacate the conviction rests heavily on newly uncovered information that points the finger at two “alternative suspects” who were not included in the initial trial. Prosecutors detail that they found a trial file that detailed that one of these alternative suspects threatened to kill Lee and make her “disappear.” Another trial file exposed that this same alternative suspect had enough motive to harm Lee.

At the time of his initial trial, such evidence was not revealed because it was not in the defense’s files. If it had been, the outcome of his case might have been drastically different. Instead, “Mr. Syed’s conviction rests on the evolving narrative of an incentivized, cooperating, 19-year-old co-defendant, propped up by inaccurate and misleading cell phone location data,” the motion explains.

Syed’s defense team also points out that because this key evidence was not brought forward by prosecutors in the initial trial for Syed’s lawyers to consider, the prosecution may have been in violation of their legal duty.

Hae Min Lee’s family has shared their heartbreak at the unexpected news detailing that they do not feel they were given enough notice about the motion to vacate the conviction.

Steve Kelly, the Lee family lawyer, asked Judge Phinn to postpone the decision on the motion; however, that request was denied. Reports detail that during a hearing with the Lee family which took place via Zoom, Hae Min Lee's brother, Young Lee, expressed that his family felt blindsided and betrayed by the motion to vacate and that over the past two decades, his family has been frustrated by the many twists and turns the case has seen. “Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back, It’s killing me and killing my mother,” Lee expressed. “This is not a podcast for me, this is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

In 2018, there was a similar attempt to vacate Syed’s conviction. An appeals court vacated his conviction citing that he had received ineffective counsel. However, in 2019 Maryland's highest court reversed the ruling.

Prosecutors will now have 30 days to decide whether or not they will proceed with a new trial or dismiss the charges altogether. Until then, Syed has been ordered to serve home detention.

Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti is a postgraduate at James Madison University where she studied English and Education. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and two little girls. Although she considers herself a workaholic, when she’s not juggling work, you can be sure to find her traveling the world with her little family.
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