The HBO series examining the now-famous murder case against Adnan Syed left legions of fans in suspense this week at the hint of unknown DNA evidence.
Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun show prosecutors tested about a dozen items: fingernail clippings, blood samples, a liquor bottle and condom wrapper. None tested positive for the convicted killer, Syed.
“NOTHING was matched to Syed,” his attorney, C. Justin Brown, announced on Twitter on Thursday to supporters around the country. “There is no forensic evidence linking him to this crime.”
State prosecutors, however, downplayed the results, saying the absence of Syed’s DNA doesn’t mean he’s innocent.
“These results in no way exonerate him,” said Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
The Baltimore Sun filed a public information act request with the office for any such test results. In response, a two-page report shows prosecutors tested the evidence last summer as Maryland’s high court was set to consider whether to grant Syed a new trial.
A Woodlawn High School senior, Lee was strangled and found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park; she had dated Syed. Authorities also tested DNA found on her necklaces, T-shirt, jacket and rope at the scene.
The tests showed no DNA match for anyone except Lee and an unidentified woman.
Brown received the results about five months ago, but he has not publicly discussed them. The absence of Syed’s DNA is significant, he said Thursday.
“While these DNA results do not reveal the true killer, they do go a long way in showing that the wrong person is in prison,” he wrote in an email to The Sun.
Brown says he consulted with prosecutors last July when they submitted the evidence for DNA testing. He drew particular attention to the fingernail clippings. Prosecutors have argued that Syed and Lee fought inside the car.
“If such a struggle occurred,” Brown said, “it seems likely that the assailant’s DNA would have been present under the victim’s fingernails, or somewhere else inside the car. The recent testing, however, found none.”
Filmmakers hinted at the DNA evidence in the third episode of the documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed.” In the episode’s final moments, Brown sends an email with “DNA request form,” then the screen goes dark.
Syed’s defense could have requested such a DNA test at any time in about the last 20 years, prosecutors said. It remains unknown what steps the defense will take with the results.
“We haven’t settled on a final strategy,” Brown said. “There will be more news from us very soon.”
State prosecutors routinely take action to exonerate defendants when new evidence emerges to prove their innocence. Prosecutors received the results with Brown last October. Neither side has yet presented the findings to the court.
“After receipt of results of the testing, no further action was warranted,” Coombs said.
Authorities had conducted a limited DNA test when Lee was murdered. But the recent findings bring the most comprehensive tests in the highly scrutinized case. And so, the results will likely inspire more debate over guilt or innocence.
University of South Carolina law professor Colin Miller has been tracking the case. He too expected Syed’s DNA to show up if the couple actually struggled in the car.
"Of course, it’s important that there’s not a DNA match of Adnan Syed,” Miller said. “That’s evidence of exclusion.”
Charles Bernstein, a retired Baltimore Circuit judge and trial lawyer, who is not involved in the case, said the results don’t settle questions over guilt or innocence, Bernstein said.
“I respect the defense attorney for pushing as hard as he can,” Bernstein said, “but it doesn’t do much for me. Some of it’s inconclusive. Some of it’s hers. None of it’s his … I don’t see it as really establishing that he wasn’t there.”
Meanwhile, the filmmakers drew a rebuke last week from W. Michel Pierson, the administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court. State law forbids the broadcast of courtroom proceedings. HBO included video clips and recordings from the old case.
“HBO should immediately cease any broadcasting of Maryland criminal trials,” the judge wrote HBO attorneys. The letter was provided to The Sun. “A person who violates this prohibition may be held in contempt of court.”
When asked about the footage last week, an HBO spokeswoman emailed a statement to The Sun.
“The courtroom footage was obtained lawfully and relates to a matter of public concern. The First Amendment protects the filmmaker’s right to include it in the documentary.”
The public may request to privately watch old courthouse recordings. Court officials had previously considered holding producers of “Serial” in contempt for broadcasting audio of Syed’s trial.
Two state delegates have introduced legislation to allow media organizations cameras in the courtroom during sentencing hearings.
The DNA results and HBO series come as Brown considers his next move in the long-running legal battle.
Three weeks ago, Maryland’s highest court determined Syed did not deserve a new trial, reversing the opinion of a lower court. The ruling reinstated his murder conviction.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that Syed’s first defense attorney was “deficient” for failing to present jurors with a possible alibi witness. But they disagreed that it had prejudiced Syed, saying the evidence against him was otherwise strong.
Detectives pursued Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, after an anonymous tip and eventually charged him with killing her. Prosecutors said the then-17-yer-old had murdered her out of jealousy after finding out she was dating someone else. No physical evidence tied Syed to the crime, but a witness testified that he helped Syed bury her body. Syed never admitted to killing Lee.
Convicted in 2000, he was sentenced to life in prison but has maintained his innocence. The case attracted millions of enthusiasts in 2014 when it was featured on “Serial.”
The HBO series’ season finale is scheduled for Sunday night.