The creator of a true crime podcast that helped free a Maryland man imprisoned for two decades in a murder case said that she feels a mix of emotions over how long it took authorities to act on evidence that’s long been available.
In a new episode of the Serial podcast released Tuesday, a day after Adnan Syed walked out of court following the vacating of his murder conviction, host Sarah Koenig noted that most or all of the evidence cited in the prosecutors’ motion to overturn the conviction was available since 1999.
“Yesterday, there was a lot of talk about fairness, but most of what the state put in that motion to vacate, all the actual evidence, was either known or knowable to cops and prosecutors back in 1999,” Koenig said in concluding the new episode.
“So even on a day when the government publicly recognizes its own mistakes, it’s hard to feel cheered about a triumph of fairness. Because we’ve built a system that takes more than 20 years to self-correct. And that’s just this one case .”
Syed, then 17, was convicted in 2000 of murdering his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore, in January of the previous year. His case received widespread attention in 2014 when the debut season of Serial focused on Lee’s killing and raised doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors had used.
On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn in Baltimore ordered the 41-year-old’s release from prison, after overturning his conviction at the behest of the Baltimore prosecutor’s office, which last week said it had uncovered new evidence.
Phinn ruled that the state violated its legal obligation to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed’s defense. She ordered Syed to be placed on home detention with GPS location monitoring and said the state must decide whether to seek a new trial date or dismiss the case within 30 days.
Koenig described the prosecutors’ motion to vacate Syed’s conviction as a “firework” coming from the same office that asked a jury to convict him more than two decades ago.
“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent. They stopped short of exonerating,” she said. “Instead they’re saying that, ‘Back in 1999, we didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough. We relied on evidence we shouldn’t have, and we broke the rules when we prosecuted. This wasn’t an honest conviction. “‘
Sentence review prompted fresh investigation
As Koenig laid out in Tuesday’s episode, under a new Maryland law that came into effect last year, convicts who had served at least 20 years for a crime committed as a juvenile could ask for a sentence reduction, or even a release from prison. Syed’s lawyers filed their request the day after the law took effect in October.
That request prompted a review of Syed’s file by Becky Feldman, chief of the state’s attorney’s office sentencing review unit. The former public defender was “bothered” by aspects of the prosecution and began reinvestigating the case in partnership with Syed’s legal team, Koenig said.
In the prosecutors’ motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, Feldman said there was evidence that two potential alternative suspects weren’t properly ruled out in 1999, including a prosecutor’s handwritten notes about one of the suspects, which were never disclosed to Syed’s lawyers. That failure alone could be grounds to overturn Syed’s conviction, Koenig said.
A Baltimore prosecutor stumbles upon two handwritten notes in Adnan’s case file. They change everything. A new episode from season one, out now. https://t.co/0O60tPrtxS
The Serial The host said she knew the identities of the two suspects, but would not name them as they had not been charged with Lee’s murder.
“One of them was investigated at the time, submitted to a couple of polygraphs. The other was investigated as well, but not with much vigor, as far as I can tell. He’s now in prison for sexual assault,” she said.
Prosecutors also had concerns about evidence from a key witness and cellphone tower records used to help convict Syed.
Baltimore City Police had told prosecutors they would try to speak with the two suspects, Koenig reported, adding that she believed Syed would not face a new trial.
“I have zero predictions about what could come of [the police investigation]but I do know that the chances of the state ever trying to prosecute Adnan again are remote at best.”