Adnan Syed walked free from court after his conviction was vacated. Why can’t others do the same?

Adnan Syed arrived in court Monday from the Patuxent Institution wearing a white dress shirt, dark slacks and a blue plaid tie.

After Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn vacated Syed’s murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee, she ordered correctional officers to unshackle him on the spot.


Then, Syed, 41, walked out of the courtroom, descended the front steps of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse toward Calvert Street while surrounded by family, friends and supporters. A smiling Syed climbed into an SUV that whisked him away to his parents’ Baltimore County home where he will remain under GPS surveillance until prosecutors decide how to proceed with his case.

The entire scene, even the clothes Syed wore, seemed like it was made-for-TV.


It’s also completely atypical of how things normally go when a person is released from custody in Baltimore, according to defense attorneys and legal experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

“I have never seen somebody who was locked up but then acquitted, exonerated or had their conviction vacated walk straight out of the courthouse,” said Natalie Finegar, a defense attorney and former longtime public defender.

Usually, when a person is found not guilty on all charges at trial or has their conviction overturned after serving time in prison, their release from custody goes something like this: Officers handcuff and shackle them in the courtroom, take them to a jail-like facility in the courthouse and transport them back to the correctional facility where they were held.

Only after correctional officials are done “processing” the person are they released, which typically takes several hours, but can last days or even weeks. Normally, people are checked for outstanding warrants and detaining holds placed on them in other jurisdictions.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency followed Phinn’s orders when handling Syed’s case, including the order he be released directly from the courtroom.

Syed’s case came to be known internationally in large part because of the “Serial” podcast, which examined Lee’s killing and the prosecution of Syed, pioneering the true crime genre. Other podcasts, books and documentary series went on to highlight his case.

Baltimore city prosecutors moved to vacate Syed’s conviction after an approximately yearlong investigation conducted with his attorney, Erica Suter, revealed two alternative suspects in the homicide, at least one of whom was not disclosed to the defense before Syed’s trial, they wrote in court documents. The prosecutors’s motion focused on the other suspects and evidence used against Syed at trial that has since been deemed unreliable.

The question, legal experts and defense attorneys said, is not why Syed, whose case is extraordinary by most measures, was treated with such dignity during his release but why others aren’t afforded the same treatment.


“It would be wonderful if every criminal defendant that’s been exonerated could be treated just like Mr. Syed,” defense attorney Donald Wright said. “Take the cuffs off and let them walk away, because at that point there’s no legal reason to keep them detained.”

Syed was not exonerated. Phinn overturned his conviction, but his charges stemming from the decades-old homicide are still pending.

In March, Wright said he represented a man in a murder case and won an acquittal at trial. Unlike Syed, sheriff’s deputies escorted Wright’s client in handcuffs back to lockup, despite a jury declaring him innocent moments earlier.

Wright said he also was among the many defense lawyers working on the post-conviction proceedings for people whose cases involved members of Baltimore Police’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office in 2019 sought to vacate more than 800 convictions tainted by the officers, who have since been convicted and sent to federal prison.

“In none of those cases,” Wright recalled, “was the defendant allowed to walk down the steps of the courthouse.”

Judges have wide discretion when determining how things run in their courtrooms, but rarely can someone be unshackled on the spot due to post-judicial processing that has to be completed.


“Even when the judge says not guilty, as a matter of protocol, the correctional officers will shackle a person to take them back into lockup,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue told The Sun.

The Maryland Judiciary did not respond to questions about Syed’s treatment, while a spokesperson for the city state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

The warrant and detainer checks, depending on when a verdict or judge’s ruling is delivered, might not begin immediately and a person isn’t released until after they are completed. Ultimately, there’s no set time or method for when a person is ultimately released.

“I’ve had clients who have walked home from jail in the dark,” Finegar said.

People charged with crimes who are detained pending trial are entitled to wear court-appropriate clothing, like a dress shirt and slacks, in front of the jury. Guards walk defendants to their seat at trial and remove their wrist restraints before the jury enters the room.

Court clothes are allowed for jury trials because someone wearing a prison jumpsuit appearing before a jury could be interpreted as an indicator of guilt or perceived as a security threat, Finegar said.

Breaking News Alerts

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

If a person is acquitted, Dartigue said, they have to change back into the jail jumpsuit while they wait to be processed.

And if a person is not appearing in front of a jury, like Syed on Monday, it’s unlikely they will even be allowed to wear anything other than the jumpsuit.

“The way the system works on a daily basis completely ignores and undermines the humanity of the people who go through it,” said David Jaros, faculty director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

It should be noted, Jaros said, that Syed’s treatment was made possible in part because both the prosecution and defense agreed ahead of the hearing on what should happen and submitted written motions to the judge outlining their positions.

It did not hurt, many said, that Syed is the subject of podcasts and documentaries, with a film crew following his family, his lawyers and the prosecution before and after the hearing.

But fame should not grant special treatment, defense attorneys said, and Syed’s mostly dignified release from custody has advocates questioning why the post-judgment processing can’t take place during or even before scheduled proceedings.


“The courts and pretrial [services] would say they don’t have the ability or the manpower to do it instantaneously because of the number of the people who are being processed in the course of the day,” Dartigue said. “But that would absolutely be the most humane and dignifying way to do things.”