Adnan Syed Is Free as of Today
Adnan's case is over. It happened this morning, quickly and quietly. No packed courtroom, no crying, no cheering. Instead, during a court hearing via Zoom, Baltimore City prosecutor Becky Feldman told the judge that her office was dropping all the charges against Adnan. They won’t be re-trying him for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.
Adnan had been out of prison, on home detention, since September 19, when a judge granted the state’s motion to vacate his conviction. City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had said her office was waiting on some DNA tests before deciding how to proceed. On Friday, the results came back: DNA recovered from Hae Min Lee’s shoes excluded Adnan. (It also excluded Jay Wilds, who said he was with Adnan after her death and had helped bury her.) The shoes had been found in Hae’s car, and had never been tested before.
In a press conference today, Ms. Mosby would not say whether the DNA sample from the shoes had been compared, or matched, to that of anyone else – namely the two unnamed “new suspects” the state described in its motion to vacate. Two detectives from the Baltimore City Police Department are working on the case now, and so that’s where the murder investigation lives for the time being.
The other thing Ms. Mosby didn’t quite say today was the word “exonerate.” But that’ll come, and probably soon. For a person to be certifiably innocent, to be formally exonerated by the state of Maryland, the defense has to file a motion in court. Adnan’s current lawyer, Erica Suter, said today she’d be filing that “as quickly as possible.” Ms. Mosby’s office won’t object.
I’m still a little stunned by how quickly last month’s motion to vacate was able to spring Adnan. A crude reminder of how much power the prosecution wields at every single stage of a criminal case. If you look back at earlier posts I’ve written, you’ll see the rollercoaster path of court decisions over the past decade that put Adnan right back where he started, serving out a life sentence. Even though most of the problems with his case, the messiness of it, have been apparent for a long time.
Based on reporting we did back in 2013 and 2014, we concluded the state’s case was too weak to have convicted Adnan. They had no physical evidence against him, nothing concrete tying him to the actual crime. Instead they had Jay Wilds, a friend of Adnan’s who’d given the cops shifting accounts of what happened that night; his story seemed to evolve as detectives showed him photos and cell phone records – as if they were pulling Jay toward a particular narrative. And that cell phone evidence? We could see back then that the state’s analysis of the calls Adnan made and received that night didn’t exactly match what witnesses were saying, or the state’s own story of where and when the crime occurred. Also, we found an alibi witness for Adnan who’d never been heard from.
After Season One finished, a host of reporters and lawyers and advocates (most notably, of course, Rabia Chaudry, who alerted me to Adnan’s case in the first place) picked up where we left off. Some of them contributed important new information to the mix, muddying the evidence against Adnan even more: Less than two weeks after our last episode aired, Jay Wilds gave an interview to another reporter in which he laid out yet another conflicting version of the night Hae was buried in the woods. The following year, the state’s cell phone expert recanted, saying he could no longer stand behind what he’d said at trial about the outgoing calls from Adnan’s phone. By 2019, one of the main detectives on Adnan’s case, William Ritz, would be named in successful lawsuits regarding two other wrongful murder convictions.
And then came the bombshell of last month’s motion to vacate: allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and the possibility that two alternative suspects were improperly cleared by police.
“Today,” Ms. Mosby told reporters, “justice is done.” Not exactly. Dropping the charges against Adnan is undeniably right, the only fair outcome for Adnan and for his family at this point. I feel incredibly happy for them. And also terrible for Hae Min Lee’s family, who felt blindsided by this turn of events and probably can’t even imagine a future when her death will feel less raw. Still, I don’t think we can equate the acknowledgement of a fiasco with justice being served. Everything the prosecutors put in that motion to vacate last month was known or knowable to detectives and prosecutors 23 years ago. And all of it - the shady police practices, the shaky forensics, the withholding of exculpatory evidence - is common. Ask any defense attorney who works on innocence cases, they’re lousy with this stuff. As Adnan’s attorney, Erica Suter, fairly shouted after his conviction was vacated last month: “Adnan is not alone!”
Serial won’t be covering Adnan’s case anymore, or the now-unsolved case of Hae Min Lee’s murder. But we know many other capable reporters will be, and so we’ll be watching and reading and listening. I’m as curious as anyone to learn whether someone else will be charged with this crime. But more than that, I hope these reporters will pin down the truth about the prosecutorial bad acts that Ms. Mosby’s office is alleging. I hope they’ll try to find out exactly what the cops did or didn’t do back when they were investigating this crime. And if they find malfeasance, I hope they’ll tell us whether the same system that convicted Adnan is willing to inflict life-changing consequences on its own actors. I hope we’ll all be able to see whether the state’s creaky wheels of self-correction have begun to move in earnest, or whether the rust will win out.