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Adnan Syed

Other Exonerations in Baltimore City, Maryland
On October 11, 2022, prosecutors in Baltimore, Maryland, dismissed the charges against Adnan Syed, who had been convicted in 2000 of murder and related crimes in the death of Hae Min Lee, his former girlfriend. The case had received international attention after it became the subject of the groundbreaking podcast, Serial, in 2014.

Lee was reported missing on January 13, 1999. An 18-year-old senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, Lee was a popular student, active in clubs, and a part-time employee at a Lens Crafters store. Lee’s family quickly began a frantic search, contacting the police, friends, and co-workers for information on her whereabouts.

A month later, on February 9, 1999, Lee’s body was found in a shallow grave in Leakin Park, which is on the western edge of the City of Baltimore about two miles from the school. The man who found her body, which was more than 100 feet off the road, said he had pulled over to urinate. An autopsy performed the next day said Lee died of strangulation. Lee’s car, a 1998 Nissan Sentra, was still missing.

The case was now a homicide, and because of the body’s location just inside the city limits, the Baltimore Police Department took over the investigation.

On February 12, the department received two anonymous calls suggesting that police concentrate on Syed, who was 17 years old. According to an inter-office memo on the tips, the caller appeared to be an Asian male between 18 and 21 years old. In the first call, the man said Syed and Lee had dated but recently broke up and that Syed had taken Lee to Leakin Park in the past for “sexual encounters.”

On the second call, six minutes later, the man said that Syed had told a friend that “if he ever hurt his girlfriend, he would drive her car into the lake.”

On February 18, the police subpoenaed AT&T for Syed’s cellphone records. They received the records a few days later and began interviewing the people called from the phone on January 13.

One of those persons was Jennifer Pusateri, who had graduated from Woodlawn in 1998. She had received four calls in the afternoon to her landline, at 12:07, 12:43, 3:21, and 4:12, and three later calls to her pager, at 7:00, 8:04, and 8:05.

Police briefly interviewed Pusateri on February 26, but she declined to say much. Also that day, Detectives Gregory MacGillivary and William Ritz interviewed Syed. Because Syed was under 18, his father was present. Syed said that he had no idea who would want to hurt Lee and that he had been in her car, but not on January 13. According to a memo from the interview, “When asked if Syed had a relationship with Hae Min Lee, Syed replied in a soft voice ‘yes’, however he didn’t want his father to know.”

The state’s theory, as presented at trial, would be that Syed killed Lee after she broke up with him, in part because of a chasm in their backgrounds based on family and cultural expectations. Lee was born in South Korea, and Syed, although born in America, was the son of Pakistani immigrants.

On February 27, police re-interviewed Pusateri, this time in the presence of her attorney. She said that on the day Lee disappeared, a friend named Jay Wilds visited her home. She said he arrived driving Syed’s Honda and also carrying his cellphone. She said that Syed called Wilds in the afternoon and Wilds then left. Later that night, Wilds contacted Pusateri and asked her to pick him up at the Westview Mall. Wilds got into Pusateri’s car, she said, and then he told her that Syed killed Lee that afternoon and placed her in the trunk of her car. Pusateri said that Wilds told her that he drove Syed’s car and Syed drove Lee’s car to Leakin Park, where they buried the body. She said Wilds told her that they took Lee’s car and left it in an alley in the 600 block of Edgewood Street in Southwest Baltimore and then Syed and Wilds drove to the mall, where Wilds met Pusateri. The next day, Pusateri told police, she helped Wilds dispose of his clothing in the dumpster behind a drug store.

Detectives MacGillivary and Ritz brought Wilds in for questioning just after midnight on the morning of February 28. Wilds was 19 years old, also a graduate of Woodlawn, and a petty drug dealer who worked at an adult video store. He had first met Syed through his girlfriend, who had been prom queen to Syed’s king in 1998.

Although the police recorded Wilds’s interview, there was a 45-minute conversation prior to the recording device being activated.

In the recorded statement, Wilds told police that on the morning of January 13, he and Syed went shopping at a mall and then drove back to Woodlawn High around noon. Wilds said that Syed gave him his car and cellphone and asked Wilds if he could pick him up later. As they drove around that morning, Wilds said, Syed told him that he was going to kill Lee because she had broken up with him. Wilds told police he didn’t believe Syed, and he dropped him off at the rear of the high school.

About 3:40, Wilds said, Syed called and told him to come to a place on Edmondson Avenue, a busy commercial road.

Wilds said that after he arrived, Syed walked around to the back of Lee’s car and opened the trunk. Lee was dead inside, Wilds said, and Syed said: “I did it. I did it. You didn’t fucking believe me. I did it.”

Wilds told police that he and Syed drove separately to a commuter lot along U.S. 70 and left Lee and her car there. He said they then went to Patapsco State Park and smoked a joint. Wilds said he dropped Syed off at track practice at around 4:30, then picked him up about two hours later. While they were eating at McDonald’s, the police called Syed’s cellphone, to see whether Syed knew anything about Lee’s disappearance.

Wilds said they drove to his house to get a shovel and a pick, and then went back to the commuter lot, where Syed retrieved Lee’s car. He said they drove separately to Leakin Park, and there they dug a hole. Wilds said he helped dig but that he didn’t help move Lee’s body into the shallow grave.

After they finished burying the body, Wilds said, they abandoned Lee’s car on a side street. Wilds said he didn’t know the name of the street, but that Syed had removed some of Lee’s belongings, which he later discarded in a dumpster. He said they went to a 7-11, and then Syed, now driving his own car, dropped Wilds at his house. Later, Wilds said, he threw out the clothes he was wearing in a trash can at his house and then told Pusateri about what he had done.

Police arrested Syed on February 28, charging him with first-degree murder. Additional charges of kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment were added later.

Separately on February 28, police located Lee’s Nissan in the 300 block of Edgewood Avenue. The vehicle was processed for evidence, including DNA and fingerprints. Syed was found to be a contributor to fingerprints found on some of Lee’s vehicle documents and to a palm print found on a map book in the back seat.

Wilds gave a second taped interview to police detectives on March 15, 1999. While the basic outline of his statement tracked his initial statement, there were substantial changes in the timeline of events and what occurred between when he said Syed told him of his plans, when he said Syed first showed Lee’s body to Wilds, and before and after he said they buried Lee’s body. Now, he said he had told Pusateri about Syed’s intent in the early afternoon, before Syed called him. Wilds said that he met Syed at the Best Buy on Security Boulevard, rather than along Edmondson Avenue. Wilds also said that after he picked Syed up from track practice, they went to the house of a woman named Kristina Vinson instead of going to a McDonald’s. At the house, Wilds said, Syed took the call from the police. In addition, Wilds now said that Syed threatened to tell the police about his drug dealing unless Wilds helped him dispose of the body. He also said that he saw his girlfriend after Pusateri picked him up, and that he returned to Vinson’s house for the rest of the evening.

Wilds entered into a plea agreement to accessory after the fact to murder on September 7, 1999.

Syed’s trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court began on December 8, 1999. He was represented by Cristina Gutierrez. Syed did not have an airtight alibi for most of January 13, but his family members said he was at a mosque during the evening, praying with his father in observance of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.

The first trial ended in a mistrial on the sixth day after Gutierrez and Judge William Quarles got in an argument, and he called her a liar loud enough for jurors and people in the audience to hear.

The second trial, presided over by Judge Wanda Heard, began January 21, 2000. There were no witnesses who saw Syed get into Lee’s car on the day, although one witness, a student named Aisha P., said she saw Syed talking to Lee at 2:15 p.m. Another student at the school, Krista, testified that she saw Syed in her photography class that morning and he told her that Lee was taking him to pick up his car after school.

Deborah Warren, a prosecution witness, had testified on cross-examination at the first trial that she saw Syed at the school at 2:45 p.m., creating a problem for the state because it was at odds with the prosecution’s timeline. But at the second trial, she testified she didn’t remember when she saw Syed.

Sharon Talmadge, a supervisor in the Latent Print Division of the Baltimore Police Department, testified that she found fingerprints belonging to Syed on several documents in Lee’s car, as well as a map, and floral paper. Under cross-examination, she testified that she could not say when Syed might have touched the items.

A T-shirt with blood was found in Lee’s car. Melissa Long, a forensic chemist with the Maryland State Crime Laboratory, said genetic material extracted from the blood was compared against DNA samples from Lee, Syed, and Wilds. Long testified that Lee could not be excluded as a contributor to the sample.

Dr. Margarita Korell, an assistant medical examiner for the city of Baltimore, testified about the results of the autopsy and said that Lee died from strangulation. The autopsy didn’t note a time of death, and Korell testified that it was impossible to say when Lee died or when she was placed in the woods at Leakin Park.

Wilds’s testimony spanned five days, most of it taken up by Gutierrez’s cross-examination. Painstakingly, she walked him through his statements to police, the shifts and omissions between the versions, as she attempted to portray him and Pusateri as aggrieved outsiders to Woodlawn’s more academic students, such as Lee and Syed. In his trial testimony, for example, Wilds no longer said that he had told Pusateri about Syed’s intentions. Wilds acknowledged his lies, but said he was trying to protect Pusateri and his other friends. He denied killing Lee.

Vinson testified that Syed and Wilds stopped by her apartment around 6 p.m. She remembered the time because Judge Judy was on, and she said she remembered the day because she had just come back from an all-day conference in Baltimore for her internship. She testified that Wilds and Syed were acting strange, and she assumed they were high.

The records from Syed’s cellphone, entered as Exhibit 31, gave a partial account of the events of January 13, showing the calls made or received and the lengths of those calls. For incoming calls, the records didn’t identify the caller. The records also included a cell tower used in each call, which purported to give a rough idea of where the phone was at the time of the call.

Using these tower locations and interviews with Wilds and others, prosecutors set out to tie Wilds’s testimony with the location of the phone. Prosecutors drove around Baltimore City and Baltimore County with Abraham Waranowitz, a radio frequency engineer at AT&T Wireless, making calls from various locations, such as Leakin Park and the Best Buy, and recording the cell tower that the call used to connect.

Of particular interest to the state were three calls, made around the time that Wilds said he and Syed were at Leakin Park. The first was to Pusateri’s pager at 7 p.m. Both she and Wilds testified about this call. Pusateri and Wilds also testified that after Pusateri received the page, she called the number back. They each said that Syed answered and said that Wilds was busy and would call her back. Another unknown person called Syed’s phone at 7:16. Wilds testified that this call came just after Syed finished burying Lee, that it was brief and conducted partly in a language other than English.

Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Urick asked Waranowitz: “Now, if there were testimony that two people in Leakin Park at the burial site and that two incoming calls were received on a cell phone, they’re an AT&T subscriber cell phone. They’re cell phone records with two calls that … went through that particular cell site location, would … that functioning of the AT&T network be consistent with the testimony?”

Waranowitz answered yes.

The state had given Gutierrez a report of Waranowitz’s findings, but under cross-examination, Waranowitz acknowledged that he had not actually prepared the report. He had simply read off the numbers for the cell towers that registered as he and prosecutors drove around making calls.

MacGillivary testified that Wilds’s statements had numerous inconsistencies, many which he considered lies. He testified that he and Ritz presented Wilds with the cellphone records at the second interview, and “He started to recall things a little better.”

Syed did not testify. His father, Syed Rahman, testified that Syed was at the mosque on the night of January 13. Alonzo Sellers, the man who found Lee’s body, also testified, with Gutierrez attempting to cast doubt on his story of stumbling upon the grave when he went more than 100 feet into the woods to relieve himself.

At closing arguments, Assistant State’s Attorney Kathleen Murphy told jurors that Syed killed Lee because she had broken up with him after he poured his heart into their relationship. “He saw Hae Lee falling in love with someone else and he saw himself, in the end, standing there with nothing to show for it but a guilty conscience and a pack of lies in which he cloaked himself. That is what he saw on January 13th. That is what he saw when he put his hands around her neck and squeezed, literally, the life from her … Make no mistake about it, ladies and gentlemen, this was not a crime about love, this was a crime about pride.”

She said the cellphone records provided a clear timeline that matched Wilds’s testimony.

Gutierrez’s closing argument rambled, but she said the case against Syed was circumstantial and built on the deceitful testimony of Wilds and Pusateri. She said there was a rush to judgment after police received the anonymous call, and they too quickly ruled out Sellers and Lee’s new boyfriend. She said the fact that Syed dated outside his religion or that his mother confronted Lee about dating her son, as several witnesses testified, was not motive for a murder.

On February 25, 2000, after less than a day of deliberation, the jury convicted Syed of all charges. On June 6, Judge Heard sentenced Syed to life plus 30 years in prison.

By then, Syed had replaced Gutierrez with Charles Dorsey.

Prior to his sentencing, Syed spoke to the court. He said: “I have maintained my innocence from the beginning, and to my family and to those who have believed in me since the beginning, I would just like them to know that it is for a reason. I can only ask for the mercy of the court in sentencing me, and I can only remain strong in my faith and hope that one day I shall have another chance in court. I’m just sorry for all the pain that this has caused everyone.”

Following the trial, Wilds received a sentence of five years of probation for his plea of accessory after the fact.

Syed appealed his conviction, arguing, among other things, that the state failed to disclose the entire terms of Wilds’s plea agreement. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed his conviction in 2003.

In 2010, Syed filed a motion for post-conviction relief, asserting that Gutierrez had provided ineffective representation in several areas, including her cross-examination of Warren and her failure to call a woman named Asia McClain as an alibi witness. McClain had written Syed a letter shortly after his arrest, reminding him that she and her boyfriend had seen him at the Woodlawn Public Library, which was adjacent to the school, shortly before 3 p.m. on January 13. “Why haven’t you told anyone about talking to me in the library?” she wrote.

At the time of the trial, Gutierrez was awash in financial problems and suffering from health complications related to diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Clients complained that she mishandled their cases. The Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred Gutierrez in 2001. She died in 2004.

Judge Martin Welch of Baltimore City Circuit Court held two days of hearings. On January 9, 2014, he denied Syed’s motion. He said Gutierrez had been an effective attorney, with sound strategic reasons for her courtroom decisions. Although McClain had said she saw Syed at the library, Syed’s own alibi was that he remained on campus after school ended and before track practice began.

“Based on this inconsistency, trial counsel had adequate reason to believe that pursuing Ms. McClain as a potential alibi witness would not have been helpful to Petitioner’s defense and may have, in fact, harmed the defense’s ultimate theory of the case,” Judge Welch wrote.

By then, Syed’s case had disappeared from view. It was just one more murder conviction in a city plagued by homicides. But on October 3, 2014, Lee’s murder and Syed’s conviction became the subject of Serial, a podcast developed by journalist Sarah Koenig and the producers of the public radio show, This American Life. Over 12 episodes, Koenig took listeners through the case, trying to figure out what happened. At the end, she said that as a juror, she would have voted to acquit, but “If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt.”

After Judge Welch’s decision, Syed filed a motion for a leave to appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The motion was later supplemented on January 20, 2015, with an affidavit from McClain. She again said that she saw Syed in the library at around 2:30 p.m. on January 13, 1999. She also said that in 2010, members of Syed’s defense team reached out to her. Unsure of what they wanted, McClain contacted Urick, with the state’s attorney’s office. “Urick discussed the evidence of the case in a manner that seemed designed to get me to think Syed was guilty and that I should not bother participating in the case,” McClain said.

The Court of Special Appeals granted the leave to appeal on February 6, 2015, and sent the case back to Baltimore City Circuit Court. Syed moved to reopen his motion for post-conviction relief.

Serial was eventually downloaded more than 300 million times, and the re-examination of Syed’s conviction became crowd-sourced, as journalists, attorneys, and others pored over the case.

Attorney Rabia Chaudry, the sister of one of Syed’s closest friends, had been the source of Koenig’s interest in the case, and she started her own podcast, called Undisclosed, which began on April 13, 2015. The Undisclosed team included attorney Susan Simpson and law professor Colin Miller. Among other things, they uncovered problems with the cellphone evidence and its connection to testimony. For example, Waranowitz testified that two calls made by Wilds to Pusateri originated along Edmondson Avenue, but that contradicted Wilds’s testimony that he was at the Westview Mall getting rid of his shovel when he placed the calls.

Simpson reported on her blog that Urick had either misread or misrepresented the cellphone records, incorrectly referring to an incoming voicemail to Syed’s phone as an instance of Syed checking voicemail. This allowed him to argue that Syed was in possession of the phone at a time when he claimed he was still at practice.

Most importantly, Simpson found that the records sent by AT&T to the Baltimore Police Department carried a disclaimer on the cover sheet: “Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location.”

These issues and others would be bundled into a supplement to the motion to reopen the case, asserting an additional claim of ineffective assistance by Gutierrez.

The motion said: “Despite being aware of this information – or at least having constructive knowledge of it – the State introduced the evidence at trial and later held it up as being its strongest evidence. Gutierrez, meanwhile, had received the information, but failed to act on it in any way. She failed to hire an expert to interpret it … she failed to cross-examine the State’s expert about it; and she failed to present the evidence to the Jury. There is no imaginable way this could have been a strategic choice. It was human error.”

Separately, Waranowitz recanted his trial testimony. He said in an affidavit dated October 5, 2015: “If I had been aware of this disclaimer, it would have affected my testimony. I would not have affirmed the interpretation of a phone’s possible geographical location until I could ascertain the reasons and details for the disclaimer.”

On June 30, 2016, Judge Welch threw out Syed’s conviction and granted him a new trial based on Gutierrez’s failure to use the disclaimer to adequately challenge the state’s cellphone records. “The disclaimer casts a fog of uncertainty over Exhibit 31 and thus, but for trial counsel's failure to cross-examine Waranowitz about the disclaimer, there is a substantial possibility that the result of the trial was fundamentally unreliable,” Welch wrote.

He said that Gutierrez was ineffective in her failure to thoroughly investigate McClain’s potential alibi, but that the failure didn’t harm Syed because the state’s timeline was imprecise about the time that Lee was strangled. Prosecutors had said Syed called Wilds from the Best Buy at 2:36, after he killed Lee, but Wilds testified Syed called him at 3:50.

On August 1, 2016, the state appealed, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the ruling on March 29, 2018, although the judges based the ruling on Gutierrez’s failure to investigate McClain’s potential alibi, rather than the disclaimer on the cellphone records, which the court said was barred because it should have been raised in an earlier appeal.

The state appealed, and on March 8, 2019, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, reversed and reinstated Syed’s conviction. The court agreed with Judge Welch’s initial ruling that Syed wasn’t prejudiced by Gutierrez’s failure to investigate McClain as an alibi witness.

On March 10, 2019, HBO began a four-part documentary series, entitled The Case Against Adnan Syed. The series reported that Syed turned down a plea bargain in 2018 that would have allowed a sentence reduction. It also found that Vinson might have confused the date about when she saw Syed and Wilds, because her college schedule showed she had a class that night.

On August 19, 2019, Syed petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. The petition said the Maryland court had misapplied the case law for determining ineffective assistance of counsel, creating a hypothetical scenario of the crime that made Gutierrez’s failure to use McClain’s testimony less important.

The Supreme Court, without comment, denied Syed’s petition on November 25, 2019.

On October 1, a new law in Maryland took effect that allowed the state more latitude in filing motions to vacate convictions. Although initially aimed to assist persons wrongfully convicted based on misconduct of members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, the law had broader implications, allowing the state to seek vacations in cases where a prosecutor had learned about new evidence that called into question the integrity of the conviction.

On September 15, 2022, Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction. The motion was the result of a year-long investigation by the state and Erica Suter, Syed’s new attorney, who is with the state’s Office of the Public Defender and the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Innocence Project.

The motion said that the investigation had developed information about two possible suspects and that prosecutors had failed to turn over information to Gutierrez that one of these suspects had threatened to kill Lee. It noted that Lee’s car was found behind the home of a family member of one of these suspects. (It didn’t say which one.) The motion said that one of the suspects had taken a polygraph test during the initial investigation and showed deception but was allowed to retake the test after he said he was “distracted.” The second test used a different, less valid measurement to disconfirm the deception, the motion said.

The motion re-examined the cellphone and tower records, and said that they were unreliable because the technology at the time relied on using multiple towers to service incoming calls. The motion noted Vinson’s interview in the HBO documentary, and also said that the state could not rely on Wilds’s testimony, which was inconsistent with his statements to police and the evidence presented by prosecutors.

Wilds, the motion said, had given three different accounts of where he initially saw Lee’s body in the trunk of her car. First, it was along Edmondson Avenue. Then, it was at the Best Buy. He told a reporter for The Intercept in 2014 that it was in front of his grandmother’s house.

“Without reliable corroboration, the State cannot rely on Wilds’ testimony alone at this time,” the motion said.

Prior to the motion’s filing, the state and defense had agreed to conduct DNA testing on Lee’s clothing, fingernails and pubic hair, using technology not available at the time of the trial. The initial results had not produced any usable results, but testing had not been completed on all the items.

On September 19, 2022, Judge Melissa Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court granted the motion to vacate Syed’s convictions. He was released on home detention and walked out of the courthouse, where he was greeted by a crowd of supporters.

Three weeks later, on October 11, 2022, Mosby dismissed the charges, after the final DNA testing excluded Syed.

“Finally, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man,” said Suter. “The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/24/2022
Last Updated: 10/24/2022
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Kidnapping, Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1999
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes