Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man serving life in prison for a murder he says he did not commit, could have his conviction overturned as soon as Monday afternoon.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn set a hearing for 2 p.m. Monday to consider a request from prosecutors to vacate Syed’s conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee.
After 23 years in prison, it’s possible Syed is freed Monday.
Prosecutors asked Phinn to release Syed, 41, while the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office determines how to proceed in light of the revelation of two “alternative suspects,” who were referred to in court papers that argued for the guilty verdict to be thrown out.
Maryland law says prosecutors generally have 30 days after a conviction is vacated to decide whether to drop the charges or to retry the case, according to a motion filed by prosecutors in Syed’s case.
Legal experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they anticipate Phinn will vacate Syed’s conviction because the motion from prosecutors came with the support of Syed’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter.
If the judge takes that step, it would be up to embattled State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to consider whether to drop the charges or face the daunting prospect of retrying a decades-old homicide.
In a further twist, if Mosby decides this fall to retry the case, the court would likely schedule it for trial after she leaves office next year. She lost the Democratic primary in July and is fighting federal mortgage fraud and perjury charges.
“Since the inception of my administration, my prosecutors have been sworn to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime, but in the pursuit of justice — when the evidence exists — to correct the wrongs of the past where doubt is evident,” Mosby said in a statement Wednesday.
In the motion Mosby’s office’s filed Wednesday, prosecutors wrote the decision to go forward with a new trial or drop the charges will hinge upon “ongoing investigative efforts.”
Legal experts told The Sun it would be exceedingly difficult for prosecutors to bring the case back to court.
“Memories fade, witnesses disappear, physical evidence deteriorates, other evidence gets stale or lost,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
According to the prosecutors’ motion, an approximately yearlong investigation they conducted alongside Suter revealed information about the alternative suspects. Information about those people was known to authorities before Syed’s trial, but they did not tell Syed’s attorney about it, the motion said. Prosecutors said this week that the fact that the information was withheld prevented Syed from receiving a fair trial.
“The state is not asserting at this time that the defendant is innocent. However, for all the reasons set forth below, the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction,” wrote Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit in Mosby’s office, in the motion.
Feldman wrote that the joint investigation revealed two other suspects known to investigators looking into Lee’s killing who were cleared improperly. The court papers explain why prosecutors consider each person a suspect, but do not distinguish between the two people’s actions.
One suspect threatened to kill Lee and make her disappear, information that was in prosecutors’ trial file, but not disclosed to Syed’s attorney, the court documents say. Lee’s car was found near a home where one of the suspects lived the year she disappeared. One suspect, prosecutors now say, is a convicted serial rapist. The suspects had other convictions of violence against women.
Mosby’s office and Suter agreed not to identify either of the alternative suspects out of concerns revealing their names would jeopardize the ongoing investigation, according to the court papers.
The motion from prosecutors also cited unreliable evidence that was presented at Syed’s trial. Cellphone location evidence of a now-antiquated type was inaccurate and would no longer stand up in court. That evidence was among the most critical pieces of the state’s case in convicting Syed.
Baltimore Police said Friday that they are reinvestigating Lee’s death.
Suter, the director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, filed a legal response in support of prosecutors’ request to vacate Syed’s conviction.
Syed has maintained he was innocent in the face of disturbing allegations: Authorities at the time believed the 17-year-old struggled with his former Woodlawn High School sweetheart in a car and strangled her. Her body was discovered in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Lee was 18.
Syed stood trial twice for the homicide, with the first ending in a mistrial. A jury found him guilty in 2000 of murder, kidnapping and robbery. The judge gave him life, plus 30 years, in prison. Appeal after appeal came up short.
Suter began working with Mosby’s office last year in light of a new state law enabling those convicted of crimes before they turn 18 to petition the court for a sentence modification. She and Feldman examined the case closely, working on it until the motion was filed Wednesday.
Andrew I. Alperstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said there is a strong likelihood a judge will order a new trial because the prosecution and defense agreed about that.
If the judge vacates the conviction at prosecutors’ initiation, “it’s hard to imagine they’re going to come back and prosecute him,” said defense attorney Warren Brown.
Breaking News Alerts
The defense attorneys and former prosecutors who spoke to The Sun questioned whether Baltimore police have the bandwidth to vigorously investigate a decades-old murder. The city is on pace to surpass 300 killings for the eighth year in a row, and the department continues to grapple with a shortage of officers.
“This one’s high profile. If they’re genuine with their intent to pursue the case, they’ll assign people to it,” said Patrick Seidel, who was a prosecutor for about a dozen years in New York City and Baltimore, where he eventually led the Major Investigations Division of the state’s attorney’s office before switching to private practice.
“Obviously, the elephant in the room is if this was all a publicity stunt to avoid writing about her trial a day ago, then this will be a one-day headline and it will go on a shelf somewhere,” he said.
Feldman, who works for Mosby, filed the Syed motion the day before jury selection was slated to begin in Mosby’s trial in federal court on charges relating to her withdrawing money from her retirement fund and buying real estate. A videographer documented Feldman’s trip to court, although it’s unclear who that person works for. Syed’s case has been the subject of podcasts, books and a documentary series.
A judge Wednesday delayed Mosby’s trial until March.
After another hearing Thursday, Mosby declined to answer questions about Syed’s case as she left the federal courthouse.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.