Washington (AFP) – An appeals court in the US state of Maryland on Thursday ordered a new trial for a man convicted of his ex-girlfriend’s 1999 murder, in a case that received worldwide attention thanks to the hit podcast “Serial.”
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals found that Adnan Syed, 37, received ineffective counsel and ruled that his 2000 conviction on charges of murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment be vacated.
Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, whose body was found buried in February 1999 in a shallow grave in the woods of Baltimore, Maryland. She had been strangled.
Syed has steadfastly declared his innocence and the case earned new attention when it was taken up by “Serial,” a weekly podcast that saw a US journalist revisit the case and cast doubt on his guilt.
Thursday’s ruling by a three-judge panel does not necessarily mean Syed will get a new trial, as the state can appeal the decision to a higher court.
But Syed’s lawyer, Justin Brown, welcomed the move.
“We’ve been fighting for so long that it feels great to get over yet another hurdle,” Brown told reporters.
“(Syed) asked me to convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart for all those people who have supported him this long,” he said.
“Serial has also helped build this groundswell of support for us and for Adnan and for the case, and that has really fuelled these efforts and allowed us to keep fighting on the way that we have,” he said.
The podcast — a mix of investigative journalism, first-person narrative and dramatic storytelling — focused its first season entirely on Syed’s story in 12 nail-biting episodes. They were downloaded more than 175 million times, a world record.
– ‘Scorned lover’ –
Both Syed and Hae were honor students and children from immigrant families who had concealed their relationship from their conservative parents.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Syed, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was a “scorned lover” who felt humiliated after Hae, whose parents came to the United States from South Korea, broke up with him.
His supporters said authorities had failed to contact a potential alibi witness who claimed she saw Syed in a public library at the time of the murder.
The appeals court cited the failure of Syed’s lawyer at the time — who has since died — to contact the alibi witness as a reason for ordering a new trial.
“We conclude that his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel has been established,” the Maryland court said in its ruling.
“Accordingly, Syed’s murder conviction must be vacated, and because Syed’s convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment are predicated on his commission of Hae’s murder, these convictions must be vacated as well,” it added.
The case “will be remanded for a new trial on all charges against Syed.”
At his murder trial, prosecutors argued that Syed had strangled Hae Min Lee after school in the parking lot of a Best Buy electronics store, jealous that she was seeing another man after they broke up.
Jay Wilds, a small-scale cannabis dealer who knew Syed, told police the high schooler had confided to him that he had killed the young woman, and said he helped Syed bury the body.
The case received little notice beyond Maryland at the time.
But 13 years later, journalist Sarah Koenig reviewed the police documents and other materials at the urging of Syed’s family.
Her podcast focused on alleged inconsistencies in the prosecutors’ case and the failure to contact the alibi witness.