'Serial' Podcast Subject Adnan Syed Released From Prison After Judge Overturns Conviction

Adnan Syed
Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The murder trial became the subject of the hit 2014 podcast 'Serial.'

Adnan Syed, the subject of the hit podcast Serial, has been released from prison after spending 23 years behind bars. On Monday, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed's conviction "in the interest of justice," granting him a new trial. 

Syed’s shackles were removed, and the judge ordered Syed to be released under home detention while the investigation continues into the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Under Maryland state law, prosecutors will now have 30 days to decide whether to drop the charges against Syed or to retry the case.

The move came after prosecutors made a request for his release Wednesday, saying that "the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction." After a new, almost year-long investigation, prosecutors said they had doubts about the validity of cell phone tower data presented in the trial, and uncovered new information about the possible involvement of two alternate unnamed suspects.

Syed was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and imprisonment of Lee, and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Syed has emphatically maintained his innocence through the ups and downs of his 23-year-long legal battle. Lee, 18, went missing after leaving her high school in January 1999. Her strangled body was found in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park around a month later.

Questions about whether he had received a fair trial drew widespread attention when Serial debuted in 2014. The podcast became a pop-culture sensation, examining in detail the case of Syed, and took a hard look at his first lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who agreed to be disbarred amid complaints of wrongdoing in 2001, before her death in 2004. Syed went on to appeal the decision multiple times, and thanks to the attention garnered by the podcast, was successful in convincing a post-conviction court in 2016 that the use of the cell phone records violated his rights and merited a new trial.

An appeals court vacated Syed's conviction in 2018, ruling that he received ineffective legal counsel, but ultimately, Maryland's highest court reversed that decision in 2019, with the Supreme Court declining to hear Syed's subsequent appeal. Updates to his case played out in the four-part HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed, which debuted that same year.

However, public interest did not wane, and Syed's lawyer, Erica J. Suter, did not stop, bringing the case to the Maryland state attorney's office last year, after the state adopted a law that allowed people convicted of crimes as juveniles to request that their sentences be modified after they had served 20 years in prison.

It was during this time that additional evidence emerged, requiring prosecutors to conduct a more in-depth investigation, that ultimately led to the new evidence that was discovered, and Syed's ultimate release on Monday.

His release was celebrated outside the Maryland courtroom, with press, fans of the podcast and more swarming him as he walked down the courthouse steps.

Syed’s lawyer said that her client was stunned to have walked out of prison after spending more than half his life behind bars.

"He said he can’t believe it’s real," Suter said at a news conference. "Today is both joyful and incredibly overwhelming."

Serial podcast host Sarah Koenig was also at the courthouse when Syed was released, with the podcast's official Twitter account announcing that a new episode regarding the latest update in Syed's case will be released on Tuesday.

For more on Syed's years-long legal battle, check out the links below.