By Eric Levenson and Brian Vitagliano, CNN
Baltimore prosecutors on Tuesday dropped all charges against Adnan Syed, the man who spent over two decades behind bars for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and whose murder case was featured in the landmark podcast “Serial.”
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Tuesday she instructed her office to dismiss the charges after results of advanced DNA testing of Lee’s shoes, skirt, pantyhose and jacket ruled out Syed.
“The items that we tested had never before been tested,” Mosby said. “We used advanced DNA to determine that it was not Adnan Syed.”
Prosecutors will continue to investigate Lee’s death and prosecute whoever is responsible. As for Syed, “this case is over,” she said.
Mosby said the responsibility for the conviction belonged to past administrations, though she still apologized to Lee’s family as well as to Syed and his family.
“Equally heartbreaking is the pain and sacrifice and trauma that has been imposed not just on (Lee’s) family, but Adnan and his family, who together spent 23 years imprisoned for a crime as a result of a wrongful conviction,” she said.
Syed was freed from prison last month after prosecutors without warning moved to vacate his murder conviction, saying the state “lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction” but stopped short of declaring his innocence. Prosecutors had 30 days to decide whether to pursue a new trial and were waiting on DNA analysis to determine their next steps.
The decision to drop charges comes about 23 years after the disappearance of Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend and high school classmate. Her strangled body was discovered in a city forest three weeks later.
Syed, who was 17 at the time of her death, was charged with her killing, convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison.
Yet he has long maintained his innocence, and his story was featured in the “Serial” podcast that raised questions about the conviction and his legal representation. The podcast reached a huge audience and set off a true-crime podcasting boom as well as further examinations of the case, including the HBO docuseries, “The Case Against Adnan Syed.”
Last month, prosecutors announced that a nearly yearlong investigation revealed evidence about the possible involvement of two suspects other than Syed that was not properly turned over to defense attorneys, prosecutors said. The reinvestigation also raised questions about the reliability of cell phone data records, which were used to corroborate testimony of a witness who said he helped Syed dig a hole for the victim’s body.
Based on the prosecution’s motion, a judge last month vacated the conviction and freed Syed, who walked out of the courthouse to cheers and applause from supporters.
Syed’s attorney praises dismissal as long overdue
Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, praised the decision to drop charges as long overdue.
“Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man. The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit,” she said in a statement.
“While the proceedings are not completely over, this is an important step for Adnan, who has been on house arrest since the motion to vacate was first granted last month,” she added. “He still needs some time to process everything that has happened and we ask that you provide him and his family with that space.”
Syed had been wearing an ankle monitor with location tracking, but he was taken off home monitoring on Tuesday, Suter said.
In the long-term, Syed plans to continue his college education and has dreams of going to law school, she said. Today, though, he plans to spend time with his loved ones without being on home detention.
“I think he’s just really elated to have the small, quiet, everyday joys of freedom that many of us take for granted,” she said.
Steve Kelly, attorney for Lee’s family, said the family learned about the dismissal of charges through the media and criticized the attorney’s office for not notifying them beforehand.
“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 she reached out to Kelly on Tuesday morning to inform them of her decision, but she had not heard back.
Lee’s familly has previously said they were not notified in a timely manner of the prosecution’s intent to vacate the charges last month. Young Lee, the victim’s brother, said he felt “betrayed” by the state.
“This isn’t a podcast for me, it’s real life,” Lee said during last month’s hearing.
Why prosecutors dropped charges
The path to Syed’s release began in earnest last April, when attorneys for Syed brought the case to the attention of the Sentencing Review Unit. A recent piece of legislation had allowed people convicted of crimes as juveniles to ask for a modified sentence after they have served 20 years in prison, Mosby’s office said.
That review revealed deeper problems with the case against Syed, though.
In particular, the prosecution discovered alternate suspects who were known at the time of the original investigation “and were not properly ruled out nor disclosed to the defense,” according to Mosby’s statement. The state has not disclosed the names of the suspects but said that, according to the trial file, one of them said, “He would make her [Ms. Lee] disappear. He would kill her.”
The investigation also revealed that one suspect was convicted of attacking a woman in her vehicle, according to the statement. The second suspect was convicted of engaging in serial rape and sexual assault, the statement said.
Lee’s car was located “directly behind the house of one of the suspect’s family members,” the statement said.
Prosecutors said they will continue to fight for justice for Lee’s family.
“We truly empathize with Hae Min Lee’s family, who believed they had resolution and are now being re-traumatized by the misdeeds of the prior prosecutors,” Zy Richardson, director of communications for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, said in a statement.
“As administrators of the criminal justice system, our responsibility is to ensure that justice is done, and the right person is held accountable. We refuse to be distracted from this fundamental obligation and will never give up in our fight for the Lee family,” Richardson said.
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CNN’s Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.