A US judge on Monday overturned the conviction of a man held for 23 years for a murder he has always denied, a case at the heart of the worldwide hit podcast “Serial”.
Adnan Syed, 42, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000 for the murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, on the east coast of the United States.
In an unexpected turnaround, city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby filed a motion last week to have the verdict set aside, saying she had doubts about Adnan Syed’s guilt, and asked for his release.
Two alternate suspects
Mrs Mosby explained that she had discovered the existence of “two alternative suspects”, crucial information that was poorly exploited at the time and which, above all, had not been communicated to the defense before the trial.
On Monday, a magistrate therefore validated the prosecutor’s request, during a hearing in a crowded room in a Baltimore court. “In the interest of justice and fairness, the motion is granted and the accused will be released” and fitted with an electronic bracelet, Judge Melissa Phinn said.
Agents then removed Adnan Syed’s shackles, while part of the room applauded before being called to order. The full beard, and the head covered with a cap, he showed no reaction.
“He finds it hard to believe that it is really true” and “now wants to spend time with his family”, confided his lawyer Erica Suter in front of the courthouse, while his client rushed into a car without making a statement.
“A nightmare that never ends”
Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby insisted that justice had no “not yet declared Adnan Syed innocent” and that she would await the results of additional DNA analysis before deciding whether to drop the charges against him or organize a new trial.
She has 30 days to do so. Whatever her decision, she promised to continue the investigation “to ensure that Hae Min Lee’s family knows for sure the culprit”.
During the hearing, the young woman’s brother, Young Lee, took the floor by telephone to explain his dismay. saying “live a nightmare that never ends”, he confided that he felt “deceived” by prosecutors who for years maintained holding the right culprit, before finally changing their minds.
He always maintained his innocence
The case began in February 1999, when police found the body of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee half-buried in a Baltimore woods. Arrested at the age of 17, Adnan Syed was sentenced to life imprisonment a year later.
According to the prosecution, he had not supported that she left him for another and had strangled her. He has always proclaimed his innocence, claiming to be the victim of anti-Muslim prejudice.
In 2014, a team of journalists conducted a counter-investigation, told in twelve episodes in the first season of “Serial”. A precursor to the era of podcasts, this radio soap opera has, according to its producers, been downloaded more than 300 million times. It also inspired an HBO documentary.
A potential alibi
The investigation by journalists from “Serial” had shown that Adnan Syed’s lawyer had neglected a mobile phone expertise favorable to the accused, as well as the testimony of a young girl who offered him a potential alibi.
Their work led to a reopening of the case, and in March 2018, a Maryland appeals court ordered a new trial, finding that the lawyer had brought a “ineffective help” to his client.
In March 2019, the Supreme Court of Maryland had recognized that the lawyer had been wrong not to present certain elements, but she had considered that“given the totality of the evidence”, the verdict would not have been different had she included them. She had therefore refused the organization of a new trial.
Adnan Syed’s defense then turned to the United States Supreme Court. In 2019, she refused to intervene, which seemed to put an end to her hopes of release.
But the Baltimore prosecutor, who has a service dedicated to the correction of miscarriages of justice, reopened the file once again, ultimately causing this latest judicial reversal.
A new episode of “Serial” will air this Tuesday morning, the podcast announced on its Twitter account on Monday.