In a remarkable reversal, Adnan Syed walked out of prison on Monday for the first time since he was a teenager, having spent 23 years fighting his conviction on charges that he murdered his former high school girlfriend, a case that was chronicled in the first season of the hit podcast “Serial.”
Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated the conviction “in the interests of justice and fairness,” finding that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Mr. Syed at trial and discovered new evidence that could have affected the outcome of his case.
Prosecutors have 30 days to decide if they will proceed with a new trial or drop the charges against Mr. Syed, who was ordered to serve home detention until then. Prosecutors said that an investigation had pointed to two possible “alternative suspects,” although those individuals have not been named publicly or charged.
“At this time, we will remove the shackles from Mr. Syed,” Judge Phinn declared after announcing her decision. Moments later, Mr. Syed walked onto the courthouse steps, smiling as a crowd of supporters shouted and cheered. He gave a small wave and climbed into a waiting SUV, without saying anything to reporters who pressed around him.
Mr. Syed, 41, had been serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling his high school classmate and onetime girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose body was found buried in a park in Baltimore in 1999.
Mr. Syed, who was 17 at the time, had steadfastly maintained his innocence, and questions about whether he had received a fair trial drew widespread attention when “Serial” debuted in 2014. The podcast became a pop-culture sensation with its detailed examination over 12 episodes of the case against Mr. Syed, including the peculiarities of his lawyer, who agreed to be disbarred amid complaints of wrongdoing in 2001 and died in 2004.
In a motion filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday, prosecutors said that a nearly yearlong investigation, conducted with Mr. Syed’s lawyer, had uncovered information pointing to the possible involvement of two “alternative suspects,” as well as key evidence that prosecutors might have failed to disclose to Mr. Syed’s lawyers in violation of their legal duty.
The investigation also identified “significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence” used to convict Mr. Syed, including cellphone tower data.
Prosecutors said in the motion that they were not asserting that Mr. Syed was innocent. Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, said on Monday that prosecutors were waiting for a DNA analysis that could help determine whether Mr. Syed’s case would be dismissed or proceed to another trial.
Becky Feldman, a prosecutor in Ms. Mosby’s office, said at the hearing that the investigation “acknowledged justice has been denied to Ms. Lee and her family by not assuring the correct assailant was brought to justice.”
Ms. Lee’s family expressed concern that prosecutors had not given them adequate notice about the move to vacate the conviction. During the hearing Monday, Steve Kelly, the family’s lawyer, asked Judge Phinn to postpone a decision on the motion.
But Judge Phinn rejected the request, and Ms. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, then joined the hearing on Zoom after Mr. Kelly called him at work.
“This is not a podcast for me,” Mr. Lee said, voice wavering, when he addressed the court. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
He said he felt “betrayed” and “blindsided” by the motion to vacate, and frustrated with the many turns in the case over the last two decades. “Whenever I think it’s over, and it’s ended, it always comes back,” Mr. Lee said, adding: “It’s killing me and killing my mother.”
Mr. Syed’s lawyer, Erica J. Suter, indicated that her client was stunned to have walked out of prison after spending more than half his life behind bars.
“He said he can’t believe it’s real,” Ms. Suter said at a news conference. “Today is both joyful and incredibly overwhelming.”
Ms. Mosby moved to vacate Mr. Syed’s conviction as she faces federal charges that she perjured herself to obtain money from a retirement fund and made false statements on loan applications to buy two vacation homes in Florida. That case is continuing. Her lawyer has called the charges “bogus.”
Mr. Syed had an on-again, off-again relationship with Ms. Lee when they were both students at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County. Prosecutors had theorized that he killed her after she started dating someone else in December 1998.
Key evidence implicating Mr. Syed came from a friend and co-defendant, Jay Wilds, who testified that he had helped Mr. Syed bury Ms. Lee’s body.
Prosecutors also used cellphone billing records to corroborate Mr. Wilds’s testimony and to show that Mr. Syed had been in the area of the park where Ms. Lee, 18, was buried.
A jury convicted Mr. Syed in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. An appeals court vacated Mr. Syed’s conviction in 2018, ruling that he had received ineffective legal counsel, but Maryland’s highest court reversed that decision in 2019.
Ms. Suter brought the case to Ms. Mosby’s office last year after Maryland adopted a law that allowed people convicted of crimes as juveniles to request that their sentences be modified after they had served 20 years in prison.
As Ms. Mosby’s office considered the request, additional evidence emerged requiring prosecutors to conduct a more in-depth investigation, the office said.
Significantly, the investigation identified the two “alternative suspects” who may have been involved together or separately and were “known persons at the time of the investigation” but were never ruled out, prosecutors said. Both had “motive and/or propensity to commit this crime,” they wrote.
Prosecutors did not disclose their names, and close watchers of the case have been speculating about who they are and whether they were mentioned in “Serial” or the four-part HBO documentary “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” which debuted in 2019. (In 2020, The New York Times Company bought Serial Productions, the company behind the podcast.)
Prosecutors said that a document they found in their trial file indicated that one of the people had threatened Ms. Lee in front of another person, saying he would make her “disappear” and “kill her.”
Prosecutors also found another document in their trial file in which a different person relayed information that “can be viewed as a motive for that same suspect to harm the victim,” the motion stated.
The evidence could have helped Mr. Syed at trial, but it was not in the defense’s files or in any of the pleadings that prosecutors produced for the defense, the motion stated.
The apparent failure to turn over the files might have violated a landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1963, Brady v. Maryland, which obligates prosecutors to provide their adversaries with any evidence that could be construed as favorable to the accused, the motion stated.
The prosecutors’ investigation found that one of the two “alternative suspects” had been convicted of attacking a woman in her vehicle, and that one had been convicted of engaging in serial rape and sexual assault. Ms. Mosby’s office also disclosed that Ms. Lee’s car had been found directly behind the house of a family member of one of the individuals.
In the motion, prosecutors questioned the cellphone data used to place Mr. Syed near the burial site, citing a notice on the cellphone records specifically stating that billing locations for incoming calls “would not be considered reliable information for location.” Two experts they consulted agreed with that assessment.
“Mr. Syed’s conviction rests on the evolving narrative of an incentivized, cooperating, 19-year-old co-defendant, propped up by inaccurate and misleading cellphone location data,” Ms. Suter wrote in a court motion on Wednesday, referring to Mr. Wilds. “This was so in 1999, when Mr. Syed was a 17-year-old child. It remains so today.”
Adam Bednar contributed reporting from Baltimore.