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Baltimore's chief prosecutor has filed a motion to vacate the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the man convicted as a teen of murdering his ex-girlfriend and whose case rocketed to national attention after it was featured on the hit true crime podcast "Serial."
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and officials with the Sentencing Review Unit (SRU) submitted their request to vacate Syed’s conviction on Wednesday, according to a filing reviewed by Oxygen.com. The motion to set Syed’s conviction aside, as well as grant him a new trial, comes after Syed’s defense team – with the help of the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project – asked the SRU to reexamine the case following the Juvenile Restoration Act of 2021, which allows defendants to request a sentencing modification if they were convicted as a minor.
It was during this review, prosecutors say, that “additional evidence emerged,” prompting a new look into the case.
Syed was found guilty of the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, who was strangled to death and buried in Baltimore's Leakin Park. The case was examined in depth during the first season of the “Serial” podcast in 2014.
Syed was sentenced in 2000 to life in prison plus 30 years.
“Since the inception of my administration, my prosecutors have been sworn in to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime, but in the pursuit of justice – when the evidence exists – to correct the wrongs of the past where doubt is evident,” Mosby said in a statement. “For that reason, after a nearly year-long investigation reviewing the facts of the case, Syed deserves a new trial where he is adequately represented, and the latest evidence can be presented.”
Mosby emphasized that her office was not asserting Syed’s innocence and that the investigation was ongoing.
“We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in [the] results of the first trial, would be unjust,” Mosby continued.
SRU Chief Becky Feldman and Syed’s defense petitioned last March that DNA from the crime scene be retested, a motion approved by Baltimore Court Judge Melissa Phinn, who ordered physical evidence be sent to California for analysis. Parties agreed to use testing unavailable at the time of the investigation.
“After consultation with DNA experts, the team tested the items believed to most likely yield results for touch DNA,” including fingernails, fingernail clippings, pubic hairs, and the victim’s clothing, according to Mosby's office. "Trace level male DNA" was detected on several of the items: Lee's right fingernail swabs, the right fingernail clippers swabs, and swabs of her shirt, however subsequent analysis yielded "no useful typing results." Some of the items are still being analyzed.
Prosecutors say new evidence also suggests two alternate suspects were never disclosed to the defense, which constituted a Brady violation.
“The two suspects may be involved individually or may be involved together. These suspects were not known persons at the time of the original investigation and were not properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense,” Mosby's office stated.
Officials were unable to release the names of the potential suspects, but according to court files cited by prosecutors, one said “he would make her [Lee] disappear” and that “he would kill her.”
One of the suspects had a previous conviction after attacking a female victim in her vehicle, while the other was also convicted of serial rape and sexual assault, according to Mosby's office.
Furthermore, Lee’s car was found near the residence of one of the new suspect’s relatives, per the motion.
Prosecutors also said they discovered a document from the original trial files, which included a death threat made by someone against Hae Min Lee. Prosecutors at the time withheld the death threat, which was made by a person separate from the aforementioned suspects, according to Mosby's office.
“This information about the threat and motives to harm could have provided a basis of the defense and was not disclosed to the trial nor the post-conviction defense counsel,” according to the state’s attorney’s release.
On top of new DNA testing and two new suspects, prosecutors say they also considered unreliable cell phone data that played a critical role in Syed's conviction. The State’s Attorney’s office says prosecutors from a previous administration ignored warnings that locations of incoming calls – a crucial part of Syed’s trial – “would not be considered reliable information for location.”
A new examination of cell phone records included consultation from a digital forensics investigator and “proved that the State should not have relied on the incoming call evidence.” Officials stated the network couldn’t guarantee the time and place of the incoming calls and that incoming calls could be linked to previous locations.
“As stewards of the court, we are obligated to uphold confidence in the integrity of convictions and do our part to correct when this standard has been compromised,” Mosby continued. “We have spoken with the family of Ms. Hae Min Lee and fully understand that the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable.”
The 21-page motion to vacate Syed’s conviction can be read here.
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