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Crime

How two new Maryland laws paved the way for Adnan Syed’s long-awaited release from prison

Even as Adnan Syed amassed an enormous following after the wildly popular “Serial” podcast raised a slew of questions about the evidence against him, multiple attempts to appeal his 2000 murder conviction failed, leaving many supporters wondering if justice would ever prevail.

Their hope was restored last week after a Baltimore judge vacated his conviction and an unshackled Syed descended the courthouse steps downtown, surrounded by a crowd of cheering supporters, and went home to his parents after 23 years behind bars.

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Public support, media attention and advocacy likely contributed to that outcome, which many considered long overdue.

But a pair of relatively new Maryland laws paved the way for his release: One softened sentencing practices for children convicted of serious crimes and the other created a process for prosecutors to vacate faulty convictions.

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The legislative changes — which have received relatively little attention compared with even the minute details of the case against Syed — came amid a nationwide push to reconsider life sentences for juvenile defendants and provide more robust remedies for victims of police misconduct and prosecutorial errors. They changed everything for Syed.

Advocates hope his case will increase public awareness about the power of criminal justice reform measures to address historic wrongs and flaws within the system, which has started moving away from some “tough on crime” policies enacted decades ago.

“But this case is one in a million” — not because the conviction rested on questionable evidence, but because efforts to expose those problems ultimately resulted in Syed being freed, said Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that studies sentencing laws.

Such outcomes are still rare.

“It takes an extraordinary confluence of events for that to happen,” Nellis said. “The reality is there are many more people serving inappropriately long sentences whose cases deserve the same level of scrutiny.”

Adnan Syed had his murder conviction overturned and was released after prosecutors raised doubts about his conviction.

The policies at play

After Syed spent decades trying unsuccessfully to prove his innocence in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee, the process that restored his freedom unfolded relatively quickly.

First, his lawyer Erica Suter contacted the office of Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in October and asked prosecutors to review the case under Maryland’s recently enacted Juvenile Restoration Act, which allows people accused of crimes as children and teens to appeal their sentences after serving 20 years.

Mosby’s office agreed.

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In an interview last week, the city prosecutor touted the work of her Sentencing Review Unit, created in December 2020 to consider such requests. Forty people have been released to date and almost 100 other cases are under active review, according to data from Mosby’s office.

Mosby had hired a former longtime public defender, Becky Feldman, to head the new division. Most of the cases granted review involve juvenile defendants; they have to convince a court that they’ve changed for the better in the decades since their convictions.

State Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored the Juvenile Restoration Act, said he considered it common-sense legislation that would save the state money by releasing people from prison when they no longer pose a public safety concern. The law requires a court to find “clear and convincing evidence” that such a decision would serve the interest of justice.

“There is something called redemption,” said West, who had never heard of Syed or “Serial” until his case appeared back in the headlines this month. “I mean goodness gracious, people can change.”

Mosby said Syed seemed like a good candidate for release under the law. He was 17 when his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate was found dead in Leakin Park. After a guilty verdict, he was sentenced to life plus 30 years. He had served 22 years when his attorney applied for sentence review.

While prosecutors poured over 17 boxes of court documents, however, they made some alarming discoveries, including alternative suspects, disclosure issues and unreliable evidence used at trial, according to court filings.

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Mosby said those discoveries sent the case to her Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigates innocence claims and potentially wrongful convictions. It was established in 2015 and has freed 12 people so far, not including Syed — 11 exonerations and one vacated conviction.

Further review led to a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, which prosecutors filed Sept. 16. They stopped short of proclaiming his innocence.

That motion — which ultimately won Syed his freedom following a hearing Monday — was possible thanks to a bill approved by the Maryland House of Delegates in 2019.

Lawmakers passed the legislation largely in response to the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal, which left thousands of potentially faulty convictions in its wake. Baltimore prosecutors had run into obstacles trying to get such cases vacated because some judges denied their requests, saying there was no existing legal basis for such findings.

Then-Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat later appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland, sponsored the measure. He called it a no-brainer at the time, saying it simply codified the obligation of any prosecutor to correct past wrongs.

Before a conviction can be vacated, the law requires newly discovered evidence or other information that “calls into question the integrity” of the conviction. It also says the decision must be “in the interest of justice and fairness.”

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Mosby pushed hard for the bill, even as the vast majority of her counterparts in Maryland’s counties opposed it. During a 2019 legislative hearing, Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley, a Republican, expressed concern that the legislation could lead to inconsistent annulments of convictions and a politicized decision-making process.

“This bill is far more broad than the true issue, which is the Gun Trace Task Force,” said Riley, adding that prosecutors would be “empowered with greater control over cases than we’ve ever had before, and it is a power that we are not asking for currently.”

Mosby said getting the legislation passed — and then seeing it used in the Syed case — was incredibly rewarding, what she called a full-circle moment in her pursuit of “justice over convictions.”

Mosby has joined a relatively small group of so-called progressive prosecutors across the country making headlines in recent years for their reform efforts. Prosecutors in other cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans, have similarly focused on addressing excessive sentences and wrongful convictions.

“We’ve already been doing that work,” Mosby said.

What’s next?

Syed was released from custody pending further investigation, but he still faces a murder charge. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn set a deadline of 30 days from her ruling Monday for prosecutors to decide whether to retry him. They also could investigate and seek charges against one of the alternative suspects mentioned in recent court filings.

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Mosby, who lost to challenger Ivan Bates in the July primary, said her office is awaiting the results of more DNA testing, which she hopes will come back before her term ends in January.

Some critics have questioned the timing of the motion to vacate, in part because it coincided with developments in an ongoing federal perjury case against Mosby.

She pushed back strongly against those claims: “The concept that I’m attempting to distract from these bogus charges against me … is ridiculous.”

Steve Kelly, an attorney representing the Lee family, said the process was rushed — the hearing Monday was announced on the afternoon of the Friday before — and the court proceeding seemed like a charade. He said both prosecutors and the judge treated the victim’s family as an afterthought.

Young Lee, the victim’s brother, testified via video conference during the hearing after the judge refused to postpone it a week so he could travel to Baltimore from California. He said he felt blindsided because prosecutors spent the past two decades saying his sister’s killer was off the streets — only to reverse course and free Syed.

The law to vacate convictions requires victims to receive advance notice and the opportunity to participate in such hearings. Kelly said the Lee family may file an appeal arguing their rights were violated, though the only possible remedy likely would be another hearing.

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Immediately after Monday’s hearing, Mosby stood outside the courthouse, surrounded by reporters and television cameras, and proclaimed her commitment to creating a more equitable justice system.

“I said this four months following the death of Freddie Gray and I’m saying it four months before the end of my term: Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit,” she said.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, right, accompanied by Sentencing Review Unit Chief Becky Feldman, left, speaks about the release of Adnan Syed.

An arduous process

Syed spent years filing appeals, to no avail.

In 2016, he was granted a new trial after claiming ineffective assistance of counsel — two years after “Serial” was released. But the state’s highest court reversed the decision.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, not the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, had been handling the appellate filings, which is standard procedure in Maryland. Baltimore prosecutors did nothing to challenge the conviction during that time; Mosby said she didn’t listen to “Serial” or review the case until recently because a different office was handling the proceedings.

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But in recent days, she slammed Attorney General Brian Frosh, saying he should “speak to his office’s willful decision to sit on exculpatory evidence for the last seven years.”

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That was after Frosh released a statement Monday denying any failures to disclose evidence and claiming “other serious problems” with Mosby’s motion to vacate the conviction.

Frosh’s office also offered Syed a plea deal in 2018 that would have given him a 2022 release date. But Syed turned it down; he has always maintained his innocence.

“The type of deal that they’d be offering me, it’s like I’d be exchanging one prison for another,” he said in the finale of an HBO documentary series released in 2019.

Experts said the case illustrates the nearly insurmountable hurdles defendants often face when seeking post-conviction relief because the justice system is generally reluctant to acknowledge past mistakes. But they said prosecutors and judges are inching toward a tendency to self-correct, in some cases.

Whether those improvements will ever be enough to address a potentially massive backlog of failures remains to be seen.

“The problem is there are a lot of Adnan Syeds out there,” said Brian Saccenti, director of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Decarceration Initiative. “There are a lot of people who would benefit from that kind of close review.”


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