It was a made-for-media moment: 23 years after Adnan Syed — subject of the award-winning “Serial” podcast and an HBO docuseries — was imprisoned for the brutal murder of his Woodlawn High School girlfriend, he walked out of a city courthouse Monday a presumed-innocent man. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn had overturned Syed’s conviction after prosecutors raised new doubts about its veracity, placing him on home detention while the city state’s attorney’s office decides whether to try him again, which is doubtful given the length of time since the crime occurred.
Syed, who was sentenced to life plus 30 years, has long claimed to be innocent, and his fight to win his freedom has generated extraordinary public attention nationwide. Upon his conditional release, he was met by a crowd of supporters, some whooping and some sobbing over a day they thought might never come. Cue the cameras and voice recorders from media members of all stripes, including former Baltimore Sun reporter and “Serial” host Sarah Koenig, whose gripping examination of the case through her 2014 podcast propelled her career to meteoric heights and made such streaming audio shows mainstream. (Koenig dropped a new podcast Tuesday morning about the development.)
We’d love to proclaim justice served and pat our former colleague on the back for shining a light on an innocent man wronged. But no justice official is saying Syed, now 41, is innocent — just that the case against him when he was a teenager was deeply flawed. And there are many troubling questions raised by the swift reversal of his fortune, which occurred with little input from victim Hae Min Lee’s family, after more than two decades in prison.
Syed’s release came Hollywood style, just days after the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed a motion claiming there were alternate suspects who should have been given closer scrutiny and that the original prosecutors failed to share certain information with Syed’s defense team. Those findings were the result of a yearlong investigation between Syed’s attorney and a Sentencing Review Unit within the State’s Attorney’s Office. Apparently there was nothing found to conclude that Syed is not guilty, only that his case requires further investigation.
Koenig likely could have told them that. Her true crime podcast gave listeners the opportunity to sit on the shoulder of an investigative reporter as she attempted to sort through the facts and fictions surrounding the case. It did not exonerate Syed, so much as map out a whodunit where he may, or may not, have been the killer. And that, sadly, appears to be where the case remains.
Might Syed be innocent? Yes. We do not claim omniscience, and we do not want anyone to pay the price for crimes they did not commit. But it also does not give us much comfort that the original prosecutor was apparently not consulted during this review, nor was anyone within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which has handled appeals in the case. In fact, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh issued a statement Monday finding “serious problems” with the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction. How much due diligence is really going on?
It’s also difficult to feel satisfied by how matters have been handled when Hae Min’s family in California was given little chance to be present in the courtroom, let alone an active participant in the proceedings. Hae Min was strangled, and her 18-year-old body left in a makeshift grave in Leakin Park in 1999. Her friends and family understandably feel betrayed and blindsided by the attention-grabbing actions of the state’s attorney, who was recently voted out of office and faces her own criminal proceedings on perjury and mortgage fraud charges in a federal courtroom just blocks away.
Even those who are in Syed’s corner must be given some pause by the extreme oddity of it all. The clock is now ticking on whether the state’s attorney will file charges in the case and seek to put Syed back in prison; Mosby’s office has 30 days from his release to decide, which raises another question: Why set this all in motion now, when prosecutors don’t yet know whether they will retry him? The waiting game just further traumatizes Hae Min’s family and reinforces the idea that attention is the goal, not justice.
As Hae Min’s brother, Young Lee, who joined Syed’s hearing by Zoom Monday sadly pointed out: “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life.”
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.