TOM LEONARD: Innocent or guilty? Adnan Syed freed after being convicted of murdering girlfriend

Innocent… or guilty? Adnan Syed has walked free from court after questions were raised over his conviction for murdering his girlfriend in 2000. But as he awaits a decision on his future, her loved ones insist he IS responsible, writes TOM LEONARD

  • Adnan Syed, 41, was convicted of murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment
  • When he was only 18 he was convicted of strangling his girlfriend Hae Min Lee 
  • On Monday cheering supporters joined Syed as he was freed after 23 years
  • Syed’s case was investigated after podcaster Sarah Koenig questioned evidence
  • New evidence undermined the case against him – notably that prosecution withheld information about two other suspects
  • Many question his innocence including Miss Lee’s family who believe he is guilty

Surrounded by cheering supporters capturing the moment on their phones, Adnan Syed walked on to the steps of Baltimore’s City Circuit Court and savoured his first taste of freedom in 23 years.

Smartly dressed in a white shirt and blue tie — but looking washed out after decades in the tough U.S. prison system — he smiled and waved to his followers on Monday afternoon before being driven away to await the next step in his sensational ‘fight for justice’.

Now 41, Syed was only 18 when he was convicted in 2000 of strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose body had been found the previous year, partially buried in woodland.

Her death seemed to be just another tragic if unremarkable case in the annals of violent crime, but has become a global cause celebre thanks to the investigative podcast Serial, which enthralled hundreds of millions of listeners when it painstakingly examined Syed’s case. 

Serial’s Sarah Koenig, an ex-crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, had been struck by the questionable evidence and underwhelming performance of Syed’s defence lawyer at his trial. Koenig’s work as a reporter and podcaster encouraged Baltimore’s state attorney Marilyn Mosby to conduct a year-long investigation into Syed’s case.

This uncovered new evidence that undermined the case against him — particularly that the prosecution had withheld crucial information about the existence of two other suspects for the murder of Miss Lee.

On Monday, circuit court judge Melissa Phinn agreed with the state attorney’s findings and ‘vacated’ — or overturned — Syed’s conviction, ruling that he be released and placed on home detention with GPS monitoring for 30 days, during which time prosecutors must decide whether to demand a retrial or drop the entire case, leaving Syed free.

In a stunning indictment of the original conviction, Phinn said simply: ‘All right Mr Syed, you’re free to join your family.’ ‘He can’t believe it’s real,’ said Syed’s lawyer Erica Suter, adding: ‘Today is both joyful and incredibly overwhelming.’

Adnan Syed, 41, was only 18 when he was wrongfully convicted in 2000 of strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee

Adnan Syed, 41, was only 18 when he was wrongfully convicted in 2000 of strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee

In a stunning indictment of the original conviction, the circuit court judge said simply: ¿All right Mr Syed, you¿re free to join your family.¿ Pictured: Syed's mother Shamim Syed celebrates outside the courthouse

In a stunning indictment of the original conviction, the circuit court judge said simply: ‘All right Mr Syed, you’re free to join your family.’ Pictured: Syed’s mother Shamim Syed celebrates outside the courthouse

Syed’s jubilation is likely to be tempered by the knowledge that until somebody else is convicted of killing his high school classmate (a teenager with whom Syed was undoubtedly infatuated), many will question his innocence.

They include Miss Lee’s family, who have said they believe he is guilty. Miss Lee’s brother, Young, said he felt ‘betrayed’ and ‘blindsided’ by the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, adding that the long-drawn-out case was ‘killing me and killing my mother’.

On a cold February morning in 1999, Hae Min Lee’s body was discovered by maintenance worker Alonzo Sellers, four weeks after she went missing. Trudging through woodland in suburban Baltimore, Maryland, he was looking for somewhere to relieve himself after stopping on his way to work.

Keen to be out of sight of passing cars, he ventured deeper into the bushes. Then, suddenly, he paused.

As he recalled: ‘When I looked down I seen [sic] something that looked like hair, something was covered by the dirt.’

Peering closer, he noticed a foot. Miss Lee, an 18-year-old Korean-American student, had disappeared on January 13 after leaving Woodlawn High School for home.

Syed was arrested when he was still only 17 and never granted bail. At the subsequent trial, prosecutors argued that he had developed a fatal attraction to his victim and attacked her in her car after she spurned him.

A friend of Syed told the court he’d even helped him dig her shallow grave, just hours after Syed had supposedly said he wanted to murder her. Syed could not establish a solid alibi and a jury convicted him of murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment, handing him a life sentence plus 30 years.

Syed was convicted of strangling Miss Lee whose body had been found the previous year, partially buried in woodland

Syed was convicted of strangling Miss Lee whose body had been found the previous year, partially buried in woodland

Syed always protested his innocence but, after spending half his life behind bars, his family said they¿d resigned themselves to never seeing him come home

Syed always protested his innocence but, after spending half his life behind bars, his family said they’d resigned themselves to never seeing him come home

He always protested his innocence but, after spending half his life behind bars, his family said they’d resigned themselves to never seeing him come home.

But in the early 2010s — after being alerted to the case by lawyer Rabia Chaudry, a childhood friend of Syed — Koenig began investigating.

In 2014, the case was the subject of Serial’s first season, and it proved enormously popular, being downloaded more than 300 million times.

Koenig told the story like a thriller, updating each of the 12 episodes as new information came to light. Although she admitted she wasn’t completely convinced of Syed’s innocence, she uncovered enough evidence to make the guilty verdict look deeply questionable.

Miss Lee had emigrated with her mother and brother from South Korea in 1980 to live with her grandparents. Slim and attractive, she played lacrosse and field hockey.

A teacher described her as ‘one of those rare people you meet in life who is always happy, always joyful and full of love’.

Her family reported her missing when, after various people saw her leave the Woodlawn campus, she failed to pick up her young cousin from a day care centre on her way home. As Miss Lee’s ex-boyfriend and classmate, Syed was among those quickly contacted by police and he said he’d last seen her when classes finished.

Sarah Koenig¿s work as a reporter and podcaster encouraged Baltimore¿s state attorney Marilyn Mosby to conduct a year-long investigation into Syed¿s case

Sarah Koenig’s work as a reporter and podcaster encouraged Baltimore’s state attorney Marilyn Mosby to conduct a year-long investigation into Syed’s case

Marilyn Mosby's (pictured) investigation uncovered new evidence that undermined the case against Syed

Marilyn Mosby’s (pictured) investigation uncovered new evidence that undermined the case against Syed

On February 9, Sellers discovered her body less than three miles away. Police initially focused on him, wondering why he had gone so deep into the woodland — 127ft from his car — to relieve himself. But three days later, detectives received an anonymous phone call suggesting they focus on Syed instead.

Both Syed and Miss Lee came from conservative immigrant families — his were Pakistani and strict Muslims — and they felt they had to keep their relationship secret. But shortly before she disappeared, they had broken up — largely because she was frustrated that she couldn’t be open about their romance.

Miss Lee had started seeing someone else whose family would accept their relationship.

News of his arrest stunned those who knew Syed. Not only was he a gifted pupil, he played on the school’s American football team.

A popular student, he was charismatic and friendly and, apart from admitting to smoking cannabis, had no apparent vices.

Prosecutors, however, were convinced that several key pieces of evidence — none of them physical —indicated he was the killer.

Jay Wilds, a friend and small-time cannabis dealer who sold the drug to Syed, told the court that, on the day Miss Lee disappeared, Syed had told him he planned to kill her. Wilds had then allegedly borrowed Syed’s car for the day.

State attorney Mosby admitted that the original prosecutors had withheld information about two ¿alternative suspects¿ in the murder. Pictured: A collage of photographs of Miss Lee and her friends on display at her memorial service in 1999

State attorney Mosby admitted that the original prosecutors had withheld information about two ‘alternative suspects’ in the murder. Pictured: A collage of photographs of Miss Lee and her friends on display at her memorial service in 1999

The location where Lee's body was found in February 1999 - a secluded section of Leakin Park in West Baltimore (pictured)

The location where Lee’s body was found in February 1999 – a secluded section of Leakin Park in West Baltimore (pictured)

Miss Lee's 1998 Nissan Sentra (pictured), which was found during the probe into her death. Witness Jay Wilds claims that Syed showed him her dead body in the trunk of the car

Miss Lee’s 1998 Nissan Sentra (pictured), which was found during the probe into her death. Witness Jay Wilds claims that Syed showed him her dead body in the trunk of the car

The drug dealer claimed that Syed later phoned him and asked to meet him in the car park of an electronics shop. Syed arrived in Miss Lee’s car, Wilds claimed, with her body in the boot — and asked desperately for his help. They dug a shallow grave, said Wilds, and buried the body, then abandoned her car in a residential parking area and went home.

Another witness, Jennifer Pusateri, a close friend of Wilds, confirmed at least some of the drug dealer’s account, telling the court that Wilds had told her that Syed had shown him Miss Lee’s body and then admitted killing her.

Prosecutors were also able to produce tracking data from mobile phone towers that apparently supported these allegations. Yet as Serial revealed, Wilds — who was never prosecuted — wasn’t a reliable witness. In the three formal accounts he gave — two to police and one in court — there were numerous discrepancies.

The mobile phone records were also challenged on two points: that they were technically unreliable and did not, in any case, tally with the prosecution’s timeline. Wilds chose not to talk on the record to the makers of Serial, although he did speak to website The Intercept.

He said he’d been unfairly portrayed in the podcast and stood by his story, saying he believed ‘arrogant’ Syed had been unable to cope with the embarrassment of his first serious girlfriend dumping him. The dealer explained — not terribly convincingly, some felt — that his story had been inconsistent because he had feared he’d face drug charges.

Serial also addressed one of the trial defence’s greatest failures: establishing a solid alibi for Syed. The podcast introduced a young woman named Asia McClain, who said that she had been with Syed at the Woodlawn Public Library, which is where he had always said he was. But she had not been called to testify at his trial.

Jay Wilds (pictured) was the prosecution's star witness in the 2000 trial. But his testimonies changed, and the cell phone data that was meant to back up his claims was later thrown out as inconclusive evidence

Jay Wilds (pictured) was the prosecution’s star witness in the 2000 trial. But his testimonies changed, and the cell phone data that was meant to back up his claims was later thrown out as inconclusive evidence

Syed's case was chronicled in the hit podcast, Serial. He was finally able to celebrate his freedom on Monday

Syed’s case was chronicled in the hit podcast, Serial. He was finally able to celebrate his freedom on Monday

Syed said that after Ms McClain wrote to him twice following his arrest, Cristina Gutierrez, his lawyer, said she had investigated Ms McClain’s claims but discovered there was nothing to them. She had not.

It also emerged that physical evidence obtained by police was never tested for Syed’s DNA. The reasons for this remain a mystery.

Syed’s lawyer was eventually disbarred in 2001 following a string of complaints from other defendants she’d represented. She died, after suffering from multiple sclerosis, in 2004.

Despite Syed’s repeated unsuccessful attempts to appeal his conviction, in 2016 a court granted him a new trial, citing Gutierrez’s failure to call Ms McClain as an alibi witness and her general ineffectiveness as counsel.

This was a direct result of Koenig’s investigation in Serial two years earlier. However, an appeal court reversed that decision and reinstated his conviction. The court conceded that Syed’s lawyer had been ‘deficient’ but insisted her failings hadn’t prejudiced the case.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. In 2019, in a documentary series called The Case Against Adnan Syed, a lawyer for Syed revealed that prosecutors had carried out DNA tests after the Serial podcast. Syed’s DNA was not found on any of the 12 samples retrieved from the victim’s body and car.

In March this year, Syed’s lawyers and prosecutors filed a joint legal call for post-conviction DNA testing, saying that since the killing more than two decades ago, ‘DNA testing has changed and improved drastically’.

In particular, the court motion asked for clothing to be tested for ‘touch DNA’, that is DNA passed merely through physical contact, which wasn’t available at the time of the trial.

Koenig said at the time of Serial’s release that she didn’t know where the story would end — but now she has her answer. State attorney Mosby admitted that the original prosecutors had withheld information about two ‘alternative suspects’ in the murder.

One of the pair, say the officials, went so far as to threaten in front of a witness to kill Miss Lee, saying he ‘would make her disappear’.

Investigative journalist Ms Koenig (right) outside the court as the convicted killer was released

Investigative journalist Ms Koenig (right) outside the court as the convicted killer was released 

Neither of these two alternative suspects, who may have acted alone or together, have been publicly identified as the investigation is ongoing.

One had been convicted of attacking a woman he didn’t know while she was in her car. The other had been convicted of several rapes and sexual assaults. Some of this information was available at the time of Syed’s trial, while other details emerged later.

The latest investigation also revealed that Miss Lee’s car was found behind a house that belonged to a relative of one of the suspects. ‘There is an abundance of issues that gives the State overwhelming cause for concern,’ said prosecutors, adding that the reinvestigation of Miss Lee’s death was continuing.

Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, said that the lack of reliable evidence against her client was ‘stunning’.

Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s friend and advocate, pointed out that they had been protesting his innocence ‘for decades’.

And as he enjoys his first night of relative freedom in 20 years, Syed would no doubt thank Sarah Koenig, whose Serial investigation demonstrated how a tiny team of investigative journalists can wrong-foot massed ranks of police and prosecutors — and shame the mighty U.S. justice system.

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