At trial more than two decades ago, DNA analysis didn’t help Baltimore prosecutors convince a jury to find Adnan Syed guilty in the killing of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
Twenty-two years later, the results of new DNA analysis on evidence collected in the 1999 homicide could be the last bit of information Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby needs to drop Syed’s charges.
While a Baltimore judge overturned Syed’s conviction Sept. 19 at the request of Mosby’s prosecutors, Syed remains charged with murder in the death of his Woodlawn High School classmate. Mosby’s office has 30 days to decide whether to bring him back to trial or to dismiss his case.
On the courthouse steps and again in a TV interview the next day, Mosby said she’s waiting on a last round of DNA results to make the call.
“If that DNA comes back inconclusive, I will certify that he’s innocent. If it comes back to two alternative suspects, I will certify that he’s innocent,” Mosby told a local TV station last week, referencing two people her prosecutors have deemed alternative suspects following a yearlong review of the case.
“If it comes back to Adnan Syed,” Mosby continued, “the state is still in a position to proceed upon a prosecution.”
DNA tests conducted in 1999, 2018 and again in March have yielded inconclusive results, and experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they don’t anticipate the last-ditch analysis to produce different results.
“Would it surprise me to get something inconclusive or absolutely nothing or something very similar to what we’ve seen already? No, it would not surprise me in the least,” said Maneka Sinha, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law with an expertise in forensic sciences.
If that’s the case, Syed, 41, could be in line for an exoneration and eligible for state compensation for those who are wrongfully convicted. When he walked out of the courthouse on Sept. 19, it was the first time he was free from incarceration for 23 years.
Mosby did not respond to a request for comment and Syed’s defense attorney, Erica Suter, declined to comment.
In court papers filed nearly two weeks ago, her prosecutors said the yearlong probe of Syed’s case, conducted with Suter, revealed at least one alternative suspect not previously disclosed to his defense. That violation of Syed’s right to a fair trial coupled with evidence used against him that has since been deemed unreliable led Mosby to doubt the integrity of the verdict.
Syed was 17 when he was arrested for Lee’s killing. Prosecutors’ circumstantial case against him at the time relied on witness testimony, cell phone evidence that has since been partially discredited and his own statements.
DNA came up at his trial in 2000.
“He is excluded,” a Maryland State Police DNA analyst testified Feb. 2, 2000, saying Syed was not the source of blood that stained a striped shirt found in Lee’s car.
That garment was one of the few pieces of evidence deemed suitable for DNA testing then — a time when analysts needed roughly twice as much DNA, compared to today, to produce results. While DNA testing has advanced exponentially over the last 20 years, even with better technology, there was never a guarantee new testing will yield different results.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General oversaw a fresh round of DNA tests in 2018. Conducted at the Baltimore City Police Lab, the analysis produced inconclusive results.
In 2018, the lab screened at least 16 pieces of evidence, court records show. Scientists analyzed 10 items.
Swabs from a liquor bottle recovered near Lee’s body in Leakin Park yielded no DNA. The condom wrapper and a wire, also found where she was discovered in a shallow grave, were inconclusive and the shorter wire tested came back with the DNA of an unknown female. Blood samples from a striped shirt located in Lee’s car tested positive for her DNA.
In March, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn approved prosecutors’ and Syed’s defense attorney’s request to have evidence in Lee’s homicide not subjected to DNA testing before being sent to a California lab for analysis. Prosecutors hinted at discouraging results in a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, citing concerns about his trial being unfair.
“What I am seeing is results that indicate poor quality of DNA even if it was there. It’s just a case where DNA doesn’t look like it’s going to help much,” said Dr. Michael Marciano, a former DNA analyst in Onondaga County, New York, who now teaches forensic science as a professor in Syracuse University’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute.
That could have to do with the amount of time Lee’s body was exposed to the elements: Last seen on Jan. 13, 1999, Lee was discovered dead in the park about a month later, on Feb. 9.
“Insect life, wildlife, weather, rain — all bad things for retaining DNA evidence,” Marciano said.
Suter, Syed’s attorney, authored the joint request with prosecutors asking the court to test items collected as evidence of Lee’s killing, which had not been analyzed before, to be sent out for testing.
The logic was that someone who engaged in the type of struggle authorities believed Lee was in before she was strangled to death would have left some of their DNA behind. If Syed’s genetic material wasn’t on the evidence, Suter argued, that would support the claims of innocence he’s maintained since he was arrested.
Court records show all of the items sent for testing in 2022 were not tested in 2018: swabs from Lee’s body cavities, several articles of Lee’s clothing and shoes, and her fingernail clippings. Those items were to be analyzed for trace DNA testing and to undergo testing that seeks to identify the profile of someone born as a male, known as “Y-STR” testing.
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“Y-STR is better for exclusion than it would be for matching because it brings you to a lineage and, even if it matches, it could be your cousin, it could be your father, your grandfather,” said Dr. Cynthia Zeller, associate professor of chemistry and forensic science coordinator at Towson University.
Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, who leads the city prosecutor’s office’s Sentencing Review Unit, and Suter consulted with the lab to narrow down the testing to items that were most likely to produce results, according to the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.
The swabs from the fingernail clippings and Lee’s shirt underwent Y-STR testing, but yielded “no useful typing results,” Feldman wrote. The other items tested produced only female DNA.
In a footnote of the motion, Feldman wrote that they received the latest test results in an Aug. 18 report from Forensics Analytical Lab but would not disclose it because of an ongoing investigation into alternative suspects.
According to the motion, both of those suspects have been convicted of crimes. That means it’s likely their DNA is in law enforcement databases, experts said.
The University of Maryland’s Sinha reviewed several court papers pertaining to the DNA analyses conducted in Syed’s case and said she couldn’t come to any definitive conclusion without information not included in the filings, like raw data from the DNA tests.
“The results that we’ve gotten, which are basically either trace or female only, hint that additional testing might reveal similar results — i.e. results that are not silver bullets, smoking guns that would point to Ms. Lee’s killer or these alternative suspects,” Sinha said.