BALTIMORE -- Defense attorney Erica Suter said she would fight as long as it took to free Adnan Syed. She did not expect it to happen so quickly: A motion filed just last week to vacate his conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee ended with Syed walking out of the Elijah Cummings Courthouse a free man on Monday.
Suter, the director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project, sat side-by-side with Syed as the judge read her decision.
"It was overwhelming. Adnan started to cry. I started to cry. I was thankful for having that minute as the courtroom cleared to try to get myself together. It was surreal," she told WJZ.
Suter pointedly told Judge Melissa Phinn in the courtroom that her client was innocent.
"Imagine what it's like for him, his mother and brother seated behind me inside the courtroom, to believe in their child's innocence and to watch that child get snatched away from them and spend 23 years incarcerated," Suter said. "I think it's important and it matters for someone to stand up and say out loud for the whole world to see that Adnan Syed is innocent."
The evidence that caused the conviction to be thrown out had been in the prosecution's files for years but wrongfully never turned over to the defense. It included notes of interviews with suspects, one of whom threatened to kill Lee.
"It is striking, and it should shock the conscience, but it is alarmingly common," she said. "The investigation narrows down to one individual for whatever reason, and they're so focused on that individual, they will disregard other evidence -- not properly look into other leads. And you definitely see that in this case."
In an, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh denied failing to turn over evidence to the defense or Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office.
"The folks who I've spoken to and that our office has spoken to say the notes were produced, but more importantly I have to say, we gave them to [Mosby]. That's where she got them in the first place. We're not withholding them from anybody," Frosh said.
On Mosby, the attorney general told us: "We have a crime problem in Maryland, and Maryland courts have repeatedly found that Adnan Syed committed this murder, and I have to say, if state's attorney Mosby were concentrating as hard on trying murder cases and putting murderers behind bars as she has on this case, I think our state would be quite a bit safer."
Mosby reacted to the WJZ interview, putting out the following statement criticizing Frosh: "I think Attorney General Brian Frosh needs to speak to his office's willful decision to sit on exculpatory evidence for the last seven years. His inability to uphold this fundamental obligation denied Mr. Syed his right to a fair trial and now forces a family to relive an unimaginable nightmare because of his unconscionable misdeeds. As opposed to deflecting from his prosecutorial failure, I urge AG Frosh to 'dig a little deeper' and evaluate any other errors infringing on the rights of other Marylanders."
We asked Syed's defense attorney to weigh in.
"It is troubling to me that the conversation is getting shifted to finger pointing. What we know is there were notes in the prosecutor's file that were handwritten that should have been with the defendant. Now, who had the boxes when and sort of how it came to be that it came into our possession, what we know on the defense is we didn't have them. I have all the boxes of Cristina Gutierrez's [Syed's original lawyer] trial file," Suter said.
"Those notes -- that information -- is not there. I asked the prior post-conviction counsel, describing the documents to him. Has he seen this? He said no. On the defense side, it comes down to we were entitled to this. He should have had it back in 1999. I don't think I have to weigh in on the conversation that's happening between the state's attorney's office and Brian Frosh because at the end of the day, these should have gone to the defense back then."
Suter also told WJZ how Syed turned down a plea deal from the attorney general's office a few years ago.
"In order to accept that deal, he would have had to admit he was guilty of this crime, and he did not want to do it. He did not want to live a lie," Suter said. "What he said was he'd be trading one prison for another. He would have his so-called freedom and he would be looked at this way forever and know it wasn't the truth."
Now, Syed is back with his family waiting to see whether prosecutors will order a new trial against him. Mosby has 27 days to decide whether to hold a new trial.
Mosbyshe is still waiting on new DNA test results of evidence to come back.
"If that DNA comes back inconclusive, I will certify that he's innocent. If it comes back to two alternative suspects, I will certify that he's innocent," she said. "If it comes back to Adnan Syed, the state is still in a position to proceed upon the prosecution."
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