BALTIMORE — Prosecutors dropped charges against Adnan Syed on Tuesday in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee after additional DNA testing excluded him as a suspect in a case chronicled by the hit podcast “Serial.”
Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for the city of Baltimore, said her office would continue to pursue justice for Lee but that it had closed its case against Syed, who spent 23 years in prison for the killing. She said the decision was made after additional DNA testing excluded Syed as a suspect in the strangulation of Lee, whom Syed had dated.
“This case is over. There are no more appeals necessary,” Mosby said during a news conference.
She said her office decided to drop the charges after receiving the results on Friday of DNA testing on Lee's skirt, pantyhose, jacket and shoes that was conducted using a more modern technique than when evidence in the case was first tested. Although no DNA was recovered from the skirt, pantyhose or jacket, some was recovered from Lee's shoes, “and most compellingly, Adnan Syed, his DNA was excluded,” she said.
Mosby said that even though her administration wasn't responsible for the pain inflicted on Hae Min Lee's family or the wrongful conviction of Syed, “as a representative of the institution, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and to apologize to the family of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed.”
She also said her office "will continue to utilize every available resource to prosecute whoever is responsible for the death of Hae Min Lee.”
Syed's attorney Erica Suter celebrated the news, noting that Syed wasn't ready yet to speak about it publicly.
“Today’s the day that Adnan Syed and his loved ones have been waiting for 23 long years,” Suter said during a Zoom call with reporters. “The results of the DNA testing excluded Adnan and confirm what Adnan and his supporters have always known: that Adnan Syed is innocent. The state of Maryland has dropped the charges. Adnan Syed is free.”
Suter, an assistant public defender and the director of the University of Baltimore Law School’s Innocence Project Clinic, said Syed's legal team would begin working with the state's attorney's office as soon as possible to formally certify his innocence. She said it was premature to say whether they would seek compensation for wrongful conviction.
“Today we are just elated that Adnan is free," Suter said, noting that Syed plans to spend time with his loved ones. "I think he’s just really elated to be able to have the small quiet everyday joys of freedom that many of us take for granted.”
A Baltimore judge last month overturned Syed’s murder conviction and ordered him released from prison, where the 41-year-old had spent more than two decades. Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn also gave prosecutors 30 days in which to decide whether to retry Syed or drop the charges.
Phinn ruled that the state had violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed’s defense. Syed was placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring after he got out of prison, but those restrictions were lifted on Tuesday.
Lee's family last month asked the Court of Special Appeals, which is Maryland's intermediate appellate court, to halt the case. Attorney Steve Kelly said Lee’s family was not challenging Syed’s release, but instead wanted the judge to hold another hearing that the family can attend in-person and address the court — Lee’s brother Young Lee appeared via videoconference on short notice during the previous hearing.
In a statement Tuesday, Kelly said the Lee family learned about prosecutors' decision to drop the charges through news accounts.
“The family received no notice and their attorney was offered no opportunity to be present at the proceeding," Kelly said. "By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the State’s Attorney’s Office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the State so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years. All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice. Today’s actions robbed them of both.”
Mosby said Tuesday that the family’s appeal would have no effect on her office’s decision to drop the charges against Syed.
Asked about the status of the Lee family’s appeal, Suter noted that the appeals court hadn't dismissed it and that Syed's legal team was awaiting that court’s next action.
Syed has maintained his innocence for decades and captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of “Serial” focused on the case and raised doubts about some of the evidence, including cellphone tower data.
The state's attorney's office has said that a reinvestigation of the case revealed evidence regarding the possible involvement of two alternate suspects. It said the two might have been involved individually or together, but it didn't disclose their names.
One of the suspects had threatened Lee, saying “he would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her,” according to a court filing.
The suspects were known persons at the time of the original investigation and were not properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said new information revealed that one of the suspects was convicted of attacking a woman in her vehicle, and that one of the suspects was convicted of engaging in serial rape and sexual assault.
Prosecutors also acknowledged that unreliable cellphone data had been used to convict Syed.
Syed served more than 20 years in prison for the strangling of Lee, who was 18 at the time. Her body was found weeks later buried in a Baltimore park.
More than a decade later, the popular “Serial” podcast revealed little-known evidence and attracted millions of listeners, shattering podcast-streaming and downloading records.