BALTIMORE — The Baltimore murder case with international interest came to a sudden end in a Baltimore courtroom after winding its way through the legal system for more than two decades.

Millions of people learned about Adnan Syed after listening to the “Serial” podcast, and hundreds gathered outside the courthouse last month when his conviction was overturned and he was released after 23 years behind bars.

With little fanfare, city prosecutors on Tuesday dismissed Syed’s charges stemming from the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee. The hearing lasted about a minute.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had pledged to drop Syed’s case, so long as a final round of DNA testing did not implicate him. DNA extracted from the shoes Lee was last seen wearing had a mixture of four people’s biological matter, Mosby said Tuesday, and none of it belonged to Syed.

Whose DNA is on the shoes? Why are the shoes, found in Lee’s car, sufficient to exclude Syed? Will anyone be held accountable for Lee’s killing? What will happen to an appeal by Lee’s family, who argue they were not given a reasonable opportunity to be heard before the charges were dropped?

These are the questions Lee’s family and those who’ve followed the case closely have been left to grapple with, and the answers could prove hard to come by.


“It’s like the lines are not connecting,” said attorney Steve Kelly, who represents Lee’s brother, Young Lee. “The family asked me to try to explain to them how the DNA evidence completely exonerates him and I can’t explain it.”

But David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said he thinks too much is being made of the DNA element in the case.

“I don’t think this is a case about the DNA,” Jaros said. “This is a case about a flawed prosecution 23 years ago.”

Mosby’s prosecutors moved to overturn Syed’s conviction in September, citing an investigation conducted with his defense attorney that led them to consider two other people, known to authorities all along, as suspects in Lee’s death. They said information about one suspect was not disclosed to Syed’s defense – one of several reasons, they said, Syed didn’t receive a fair trial in 2000.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh disputed that evidence was ever withheld, but Baltimore’s outgoing elected prosecutor pressed ahead. Both are Democrats.

“The fundamentals of the criminal justice system should be based on fair and just prosecution. And the crux of the matter is that we are standing here today because that wasn’t done 23 years ago,” Mosby said at a news conference hours after her office dismissed Syed’s case.


Syed was not convicted because of DNA evidence at trial, but further testing could be illuminating.

Mosby has promised her office is committed to identifying and prosecuting the perpetrator in Lee’s death, though she hasn’t revealed much publicly about the two “alternative suspects” they are pursuing. She declined Tuesday to provide an update on the investigation.

Both suspects were part of the original investigation, and one of them had significant connections to Syed, according to public records and sources with knowledge of the investigation.

Authorities have not said whose DNA is on Lee’s shoes, or whether the samples collected from the shoes have been compared with other DNA profiles. That the forensic lab conducting the latest round of DNA tests was able to collect enough genetic material to exclude Syed suggests that could be done, said Maneka Sinha, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

“Sometimes, it can be possible to exclude somebody and for a mixture to be too complex to interpret otherwise,” said Sinha, who is an expert on forensic sciences. “That’s not the usual case. I expect the fact that they could do a comparison means they could do a comparison to whoever the suspect is.”

Sinha said it’s also likely a crime lab could enter the samples into national law enforcement DNA databases. Maryland law says anyone convicted of a felony, or misdemeanor burglary, has their DNA entered into the database.


One of the alternative suspects was convicted of a series of felony sex crimes in Washington, D.C. Sinha, who was a public defender in Washington, said that means he’s almost certainly in a national database.

But it’s less clear for prosecutors’ second alternative suspect.

Sinha said police can get a person’s DNA in Maryland after making an arrest, which requires only probable cause.

Lee was last seen Jan. 13, 1999, and a witness told police she was wearing a pair of black dress shoes that day. Lee’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in Leakin Park in West Baltimore about a month later, on Feb. 9. While she was clothed, Lee wasn’t wearing shoes.

Similar black shoes turned up when detectives found her car. Unlike the clothes sent for DNA testing in March, which had been exposed to the elements, the shoes were protected. Of four articles of clothing – the others being a skirt, a jacket and pantyhose — during the latest round of DNA tests, only the shoes yielded DNA.

The state’s theory of the case at trial was that Syed, upset that Lee had broken up with him, struggled with his former Woodlawn High School sweetheart in her car before strangling her to death. In exchange for a plea deal, Syed’s co-defendant and former classmate Jay Wilds testified he helped bury the body. Prosecutors have since discredited his testimony.


Police in 1999 dusted the shoes for fingerprints. At the time, crime labs couldn’t test for trace amounts of DNA. Today, technicians are able to analyze much smaller samples. A lab in California detected a mixture of four DNA profiles on the shoes, which are inherently tricky to test for genetic matter.

“There’s many ways DNA could get on shoes. Recovery from surfaces like that can be really difficult,” Sinha said. “It’s one thing to get DNA off of a surface. It’s a very different question to be able to say you can attribute that to a particular person or a particular activity.”

It’s also possible the evidence was contaminated.

“What if one cop, one time, didn’t wear gloves?” Sinha said. “We don’t know.”

Any lead that further DNA analysis provides could be a boon for investigators, said former Baltimore Police Col. Stanley Brandford, who oversaw the homicide and criminal investigation divisions during his tenure.

Brandford, who is now deputy police chief in Annapolis and headed that city’s inaugural cold case squad, said most dormant investigations are cracked when someone calls detectives with new evidence or when advanced forensic analysis points to another suspect. Without a fresh lead, he said, it’s difficult for detectives investigating a decades-old homicide to solve a case and there’s not a lot the investigators can do.


Baltimore Police have said they are investigating Lee’s death, but have declined to say what resources they allocated to the probe.

Branford said it’s important for cold case investigators to be proactive by poring over the original detectives’ notes and speaking with them, if possible. The detectives who investigated Lee’s killing are retired.

“Reading something is different than talking to someone,” he said. “There could be an emphasis on a different point.”

Lee’s family is open to the possibility that someone else may have been responsible for her killing, but frustrated by the lack of communication from Mosby’s office, said Kelly, who is representing the family for free.

Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, who handled the proceedings to vacate Syed’s conviction, notified Young Lee, who lives on the West Coast, two days before the office planned to formally ask a judge to dismiss the original conviction. When Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn set a hearing for Monday, Sept. 19, on the Friday before, Feldman notified him that afternoon.

Young Lee was unable to attend in person, but made a tearful plea to Phinn by video call, asking her to do the right thing. She ordered Syed unshackled shortly thereafter.


“Everybody needs to just sort of take a step back and put themselves in the position of Hae’s family,” Kelly said. “Twenty-three years of thinking one thing, and basically within a couple weeks everything is upended and the person you thought was the killer is declared innocent.”

Young Lee is appealing the decision to overturn Syed’s conviction on procedural grounds, and the attorney general’s office joined the appeal in support of Lee. A spokesperson for the office declined to comment.

However, with Syed’s charges dismissed and his formal exoneration imminent, the Lee family’s appeal seems unlikely to continue. A panel of appellate judges ordered Kelly on Wednesday to explain within 15 days what grounds, if any, the appeal should stand.

That an appeal can exist at all when the underlying case no longer exists, coupled with the odd circumstances of the attorney general’s office, which represents local prosecutor’s offices in the appeals process, supporting the appellant, creates an unprecedented legal situation, according to Steve Klepper, one of Maryland’s foremost appellate lawyers and appeals court observers.

Even if the appellate judges decide to dismiss the case, it’s likely there will be a push to clarify what rights victims have in these circumstances, Klepper said.

Kelly said he isn’t sure what he will submit to the court, if anything, acknowledging it is unlikely he could make a successful argument, given the status of the case.

“Procedurally,” Klepper said, “we are in uncharted territory.”

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