On January 13, 1999, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee was reported missing. Though she had been seen at Woodlawn High School earlier that day, she failed to show up to pick her cousin up from daycare, causing concern. A just concern, as four weeks later on February 9th, her partially buried body was discovered in Baltimore's Leakin Park.
An anonymous phone call received three days later pointed the police's attention toward Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. One of Syed's friends, Jay Wilds, informed the police that Syed confessed the murder to him, and that he himself helped Syed bury the body.
After a mistrial in the initial trial in December of 1999, the second trial began in February of 2000. Lasting six weeks, it concluded with a guilty conviction on charges of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery. Syed was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
Now, after 23 years behind bars, Adnan Syed walks free.
After being sent to prison, Syed and his family spent the next two decades pushing for an appeal. Their intense legal saga inspired the hit true crime podcast Serial, which premiered in 2014. But on Monday, September 19th, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed’s murder conviction following raised doubts. Prosecutors claim that a yearlong investigation, conducted alongside Syed's attorney, Erica Suter, proved that authorities were aware of at least one alternative suspect before the trial began, and committed a Brady violation by withholding it from his defense.
Judge Phinn announced that her ruling was in the “interest of justice and fairness,” and ordered that Syed be fit with a GPS monitor and placed on home detention. It's now up to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office to either drop Syed's charge or try him once again for the death of Lee. A decision on this course of action must be made within 30 days.
Following Syed's release on Monday, Mosby declined to commit to a dismissal of the case. However, she did concede that a great deal of evidence used against Syed in the initial trial is now without value. She promises that no matter what her office decides, it is dedicated to a justice system that upholds equality.
However, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh—a representative for the state in Syed’s appeals—made a statement following Monday’s ruling that disagrees with the Brady violation. He said instead that the motion made by Mosby’s office contained “other serious problems,” but did not further elaborate on what these problems might be.
Syed was convicted when he was just 17 years old, and at the age of 41 now, he has missed out on his high school graduation, his plans for medical school, and innumerable holidays and family occasions. This is all based upon the theory that he couldn't cope with Lee breaking up with him. Syed has never once wavered in his claims of innocence, yet a withholding of evidence might have derailed a promising young student for decades.
While Syed faced the news of Judge Phinn's ruling with stoicism, his family wept with joy. The family of of the victim, however, had different reactions. Lee's brother, Young Lee, expressed feelings of betrayal in the face of the prosecution seeking to vacate Syed's conviction. He went on to say that, while he respects the criminal justice system, he and his family continue to be overcome with grief. Young Lee did not disagree with a continued investigation, but felt that Syed's conviction should stand in the meantime.
According to Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, the prosecutions decisions on Syed's case going forward will depend on what they find in their investigations into alternatives suspects. As the Baltimore police have reopened their case, Feldman promised her office would provide as many resources as it could.
While one of these alternative suspects in Lee's murder was quoted as saying “he would make her disappear. He would kill her,” and another was found to be a serial rapist, Syed was convicted due to unreliable cellphone location data. Additionally, Syed's co-defendant, the accusatory Jay Wilds, has been found to have made inconsistent statements in his testimony.
Syed's attorney insists that Syed's conviction was a result of a flawed investigation. But while many developments have come to light, prosecutors have thus far stuck to their initial assessment of Syed's guilt. New DNA testing has been requested for evidence used in the trial, but the results have been inconclusive so far. As new tests are pending, Syed, Lee's family, and the world anxiously await news of the truth.
Has a killer been released into the comfort of his own home, or has the justice system failed not only an innocent young man, but the young woman who perished all those years ago?
Featured image: The Innocence Project