BALTIMORE - The conviction of a Maryland man in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend has been vacated, and he has been granted a new trial, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday.
Adnan Syed, who is at the center of the popular "Serial" podcast, has long maintained his innocence in the case.
Prosecutors say Adnan Syed strangled Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend, in 1999 and buried her body in a Baltimore park. He was found guilty and is serving a life sentence.
The case received widespread national attention when it became the subject of "Serial," a podcast series that's been downloaded millions of times. The podcast examines the case against Syed in detail and questions whether his conviction is sound.
Syed's case received renewed attention in February when the 35-year-old returned to a Baltimore court in the hopes of winning a new trial.
His attorneys argued that his previous criminal defense attorney was ineffective because she didn't investigate a potential alibi witness who claims she saw Syed at a library at the same time prosecutors say he was killing Lee. They also claim much of the cell phone evidence used to prosecute him was unreliable.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled Thursday that Syed deserves another trial because his attorney failed to cross-examine a cell tower expert about the reliability of data placing Syed's cellphone near the burial site.
Investigators used the call log from Syed's cell phone to corroborate the story of the man who accused Syed of Lee's murder, former classmate Jay Wilds. Prosecutors at trial matched Wilds' version of events to incoming and outgoing calls on Syed's cell phone, claiming that cell tower "pings" showed that Syed was at Leakin Park in West Baltimore, where Lee's body was later found.
Syed's attorney Justin Brown, however, has in post-conviction hearings pointed to new evidence that he says calls the cell data into question. The evidence is a cover letter of a fax sent to one of the detectives from AT&T in February 1999, reading, "Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location."
Prosecutors said AT&T records showed Syed's cell phone connecting with towers close to Leakin Park when he received calls at 7:09 p.m. and 7:16 p.m. on Jan, 13. 1999. But Brown has said those were the types of inbound calls AT&T said were unreliable.
In his opinion, Welch said that Syed's original trial lawyer "fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment" when she didn't raise the issue at trial.
"The court also finds that trial counsel's unprofessional error prejudiced [Syed's] defense because there is a substantial possibility that the result of the proceeding would have been different but for trial counsel's failure to cross-examine the State's cell-tower witness about the disclaimer," Welch wrote.
Welch also ruled that the trial record amended with the post-conviction testimony of the alibi witness, Asia McClain, be re-transmitted to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. However, he denied Syed's petition for post-conviction relief claiming that his defense counsel was ineffective because his lawyers never reached out to McClain.
An attorney who testified at Syed's post-conviction hearing in February said McClain's testimony would have been "critical" in his first trial, had she been contacted by his original defense team. But in his opinion, Welch wrote, "Together, Wilds' testimony and [Syed's] cell phone records created the nexus between [Syed] and the murder. Even if trial counsel had contacted McClain to investigate the potential alibi, McClain's testimony would not have been able to sever this crucial link."
Welch also denied Syed's petition claiming prosecutorial misconduct over withholding evidence related to the reliability of cell tower location data.
Brown called the judge's ruling an "incredible victory" and said it amounts to surmounting the biggest legal hurdle for his team.
"I think [producer] Sarah Koenig said it pretty well in 'Serial' - she said this case is hanging by a string --- and it literally was," Brown said. "This is us getting over the hill."
Brown said he was confident he could get Syed out on bail. He said he hasn't been able to get in touch with him, but expects he's already heard the news.
He said he did speak to Syed's family, who were "delighted."
"They were at times speechless - I had to check and make sure the phone line hadn't cut off," Brown said. "I know how much this has weighed on me and that's probably a fraction of the pressure this has put on that family."
Syed's brother Yusuf, speaking to the Baltimore Sun, said the family was "feeling great."
"I had a feeling in my heart it was going to happen," he told the paper. "We are just very happy. It's not only a win for us but a win for a lot of people who are stuck in the system because it opened a lot of people's eyes about the justice system."
"It is the continued desire of the Attorney General to seek justice in the murder of Hae Min Lee," the state attorney general's office said in a statement late Thursday. "The court ruled in the State's favor on a number of issues, but there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts. The State's responsibility remains to pursue justice, and to defend what it believes is a valid conviction."
The family of victim Hae Min Lee has generally not commented to the media. However, in February, the family released a statement in which they said the post-conviction proceedings had "re-opened wounds few can imagine."
"It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae," read the statement. "She stood up for what was right, regardless of popular opinion."
They said it was "more clear than ever" that Syed killed their daughter and that his lawyer did the best job she could. Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah agreed, saying in a statement at the time that Syed received a"tenacious and dogged defense in 1999 and 2000 by a team of some of Maryland's best lawyers."
"Unlike those who learn about this case on the Internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials -- so many witnesses, so much evidence," the family's statement read.
In his opinion, Welch nodded to the impact of "Serial," writing the case "represents a unique juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest created by modern media."During the proceedings, he said he was repeatedly directed to the podcast, which he said has inspired many to support or advocate against a new trial for Syed via social media.
Despite the intense public spotlight, Welch said he weighed Syed's petition similar to "any other case that comes before the Court; unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion."
Brown said he expects the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office to appeal the judge's ruling and emphasized a tough battle for his team still to come.
"We're prepared to fight - our heels are dug in," Brown said.