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Conviction vacated, new trial granted for Adnan Syed of 'Serial'

A Baltimore judge on Thursday ordered a new trial for Adnan Syed, adding a new chapter to a two-decade-old murder case propelled to international attention by the popular podcast "Serial."

Syed, now 35, has been serving a life sentence since 2000, when he was convicted of killing ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee the year before. The body of Lee, a classmate of his at Woodlawn High School, was found buried in Baltimore's Leakin Park.

Retired Judge Martin Welch, who had denied Syed's previous request for a new trial, vacated Syed's conviction Thursday and said questions about cellphone tower evidence should have been raised by his trial team.

The ruling came four months after a hearing that included testimony from an alibi witness who had been featured in "Serial."

The podcast was downloaded millions of times, drawing legions of devoted fans who scrutinized the case online.

Susan Simpson, an attorney and "Serial" blogger who produced an offshoot podcast called "Undisclosed," is credited with tracking down the evidence that Welch cited in granting a new trial.

"If it weren't for her eagle eye ... we might not have won here," said Rabia Chaudry, the Syed family friend who co-hosted "Undisclosed."

Syed remains in prison in Western Maryland, where he has been fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. His attorney said he expects the state to appeal the ruling, but said the defense had cleared its biggest hurdle.

"We have been fighting for this day for, I think it's been about eight years now, and it's been a grueling fight, and there have been a lot of disappointments along the way, and there were times when it looked like we had lost," attorney C. Justin Brown said. "But we made it. We got a new trial."

The Maryland attorney general's office, which argued against a new trial, said Welch ruled in its favor "on a number of issues, but there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts."

"It is the continued desire of the Attorney General to seek justice in the murder of Hae Min Lee," the office said in a statement. "The state's responsibility remains to pursue justice, and to defend what it believes is a valid conviction."

Brown said the state has 30 days to file an appeal. In the meantime, Brown said, he would work to get Syed freed on bail.

Syed's brother, Yusuf, said the family was ecstatic about the news.

"I had a feeling in my heart it was going to happen," he said. "We are just very happy. It's not only a win for us but a win for a lot of people who are stuck in the system, because it opened a lot of people's eyes about the justice system."

At a five-day hearing in February, the attorney general's office contended that Syed was a calculated killer whose conviction was the only possible outcome. Deputy Maryland Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said Syed was convicted based on "overwhelming evidence."

"He did it, and the state proved it," Vignarajah said.

During the hearing, Lee's family broke a long silence to say that "those who learn about the case on the internet" and were pushing for Syed's release were "misinformed," and that it was "more clear than ever" that justice was served the first time.

"It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae," the family said in a statement released by the attorney general's office.

Sarah Koenig, co-producer and host of "Serial," said she was surprised by Welch's action Thursday. She said she was still processing the complex ruling and the magnitude of the news and declined to comment further.

A jury convicted Syed of kidnapping and strangling the 18-year-old Lee, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

No physical evidence tied Syed to the crime. The case relied heavily on the testimony of Jay Wilds, an acquaintance who said he helped Syed bury the body in Leakin Park.

Wilds cooperated with investigators in exchange for avoiding prison time.

Phone records showed Syed's cellphone hitting off towers in the area.

In February, Syed's defense team put forward a fax cover sheet from AT&T, discovered by Simpson, in which the phone company raised questions about the reliability of technology at the time to pinpoint the location of a phone.

Other calls in Syed's phone log showed calls made 27 minutes apart in Woodlawn and Washington's Dupont Circle, more than 40 miles away.

A cellphone technician who testified for the state in the 2000 trial submitted an affidavit in which he said that he was unfamiliar with the fax cover sheet and that it could have changed his testimony.

Vignarajah said the fax cover sheet was a novel attempt to discredit cellphone records. An FBI agent who specializes in cellphone work testified that the analysis was accurate and would stand today.

Welch wrote that Syed's attorney in the 2000 trial "rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state's expert regarding the reliability of cell tower location evidence."

"The court finds that trial counsel's performance fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment when she failed to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert regarding a disclaimer obtained as part of pre-trial discovery," Welch wrote.

Welch did not appear swayed by the testimony of alibi witness Asia McClain. McClain testified that she saw Syed at a library at the time prosecutors say Lee was killed.

"Together, Wilds's testimony and [Syed's] cell phone records created the nexus between [Syed] and the murder," Welch wrote. "Even if trial counsel had contacted McClain to investigate the potential alibi, McClain's testimony would not have been able to sever this crucial link."

Moments after news broke of the judge's ruling, McClain, who testified at the February hearing, tweeted that she had given birth to a child.

"I'm speechless. New baby, new trial," she wrote.

Chaudry, who brought the case to Koenig's attention, said she was "overwhelmed."

"This is what we all wanted," Chaudry said. "We're overwhelmed, overjoyed, and we're ready. We're going to fight."

Chaudry has written a book about the case to be released in August. Now, she said, she will have to rewrite its ending.

Welch acknowledged the popularity of "Serial."

"This case represents a unique juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest caused by modern media," Welch wrote.

He said he did not listen to the podcast because it was not part of the case evidence.

"Regardless of the public interest surrounding this case, the court used its best efforts to address the merits of [Syed's] petition for post-conviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court, unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion."

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article

jfenton@baltsun.com

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on July 01, 2016, in the News section of the Baltimore Sun with the headline "Judge grants new trial for murder suspect in `Serial'" — Today's paper | Subscribe