For supporters of Adnan Syed, cautious optimism turned to overwhelming relief Monday afternoon when a Baltimore judge vacated his 2000 murder conviction and ordered his release — the culmination of a yearslong campaign that began with the hit podcast “Serial” and gained a massive following as the case came to symbolize justice denied.
The decision to vacate came after prosecutors in Baltimore city reviewed the case and found alternative suspects and unreliable evidence used at trial.
Syed, 41, spent 23 years behind bars in the death of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, who was found murdered and buried in a makeshift grave in West Baltimore’s Leakin Park when the two were in high school.
When Syed descended the stairs of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse shortly after Monday’s hearing, dozens of supporters broke into cheers. The crowd included some of his closest family and friends, attorneys, advocates and self-proclaimed armchair detectives who never met Syed personally but knew the minute details of his legal proceedings — and showed up at the courthouse hoping to witness what they considered the righting of a historic injustice.
The outcome delivered that moment of intense, long-awaited elation.
“There is God. Good always prevails,” said Nasrin Rahman, a family friend of the Syeds whose children grew up with Adnan and his brother.
Standing among the throngs of people outside the courthouse Monday afternoon, she looked around beaming. Rahman, who has often worshiped alongside the Syeds at the mosque they both attend, said their faith community rallied behind the family after Adnan was implicated in the case. She attributes the positive outcome in part to their unwavering support and advocacy.
Laurie and Drew Lawhorn of Timonium, who learned about the case after listening to Serial several years ago, rearranged their schedules to attend the hearing Monday. Over the years, they had gotten to know some of Syed’s closest supporters, including longtime friend and advocate Rabia Chaudry.
“It’s the most amazing feeling of justice,” Laurie Lawhorn said after the hearing. “We get to go home and tell our children the right thing has been done after all this time.”
The couple said the case helped shape their views on the American criminal justice system — and the systemic racism it often reveals. They also realized the importance of educating their sons, ages 6 and 7, on those difficult topics.
They said the hearing was incredibly emotional. When the judge ordered Syed released, his mother, brother and attorney all started visibly weeping. When officers unshackled him, he reached down to rub his ankle in apparent disbelief.
Laurie Lawhorn, a social worker and therapist, said she hopes Syed receives robust support to help him navigate re-entering society after decades behind bars.
“The growth you go through during that time, you can’t get that back,” Drew Lawhorn said. “The whole world has changed.”
Supporters also noted that freedom for Syed does not mean justice for the victim’s family. Her brother, Young Lee, testified Monday via video conference from California after an attorney for the family asked the judge to postpone the hearing to give them more time to attend. The court recessed for 30 minutes to allow Lee to leave work and prepare to testify virtually.
“I personally wanted to be there in person,” he said. “I’ve been living with this for 20-plus years. Every day when I think it’s over … it always comes back. It’s killing me. It’s really tough.”
Speaking through tears, Lee said he’s not opposed to further investigation of the case, but he asked the system to consider the toll this will take on his family, having to relive this horrific loss once again. He also said he felt blindsided by the prosecutors’ recent motion because he thought they already achieved justice.
“I ask you to make the right decision,” he told the court, describing the difficulty of accepting that whoever killed his sister has been free this whole time.
Some Syed supporters arrived in downtown Baltimore well before the 2 p.m. hearing, hoping for a seat in the courtroom.
Among them was retired Baltimore City surveyor Phillip Buddemeyer, who was assigned to map the gravesite where Hae Min Lee was buried in 1999 and later testified in court. That was one of three times in his 45-year surveying career that Buddemeyer was called to a murder scene.
He said Monday that the case seemed mostly done and over with after Syed’s conviction — until Serial was released. But Buddemeyer thought the evidence seemed sketchy early on, he said, partly because the story about how Lee’s body was found didn’t add up.
“It was not your typical case from the beginning,” he said.
Buddemeyer saw headlines last week about recent developments in the case, and he made the drive downtown to attend the hearing in person. The retiree recalled meeting Syed’s parents in court many years ago, seeing his mom crying inconsolably while her husband tried to comfort her.
“I think he deserves a new trial,” Buddemeyer said.
At the corner of Calvert and East Lexington streets early Monday afternoon, Erin Smith paused to take a selfie with her two daughters before they all filed into the courthouse. All avid Syed supporters and Serial listeners, the three drove to Baltimore from their home outside Philadelphia after learning about the hearing that could set Syed free, which they called a momentous occasion.
But, they said, Lee’s family also deserves justice, something that should not be overlooked amid the excitement about a possible new trial for Syed.
Smith said she got permission for her daughters, ages 12 and 16, to miss school on Monday. They heard about the hearing through a Facebook group of Syed supporters.
Hannah Smith, 16, said the case made her realize “how the justice system picks and chooses who to defend” — often based on race and other sources of bias. She said she wants to become a forensic investigator someday to help ensure more thorough testing of evidence and prevent the injustice she believes Syed has suffered.
“This can happen to anyone,” she said, before walking inside the courthouse with her mom and sister.
Other supporters waited by the front entrance during the hearing because they arrived after it started. They spent most of the afternoon refreshing their social media feeds to monitor the action inside.
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Lauren and Mickey Tait, who drove to Baltimore from their home in Annapolis after watching the funeral for Queen Elizabeth earlier Monday morning, said they had attended past court hearings for Syed and left disappointed after his appeal efforts were repeatedly denied. It was hard to believe this time would be different, they said, but they still wanted to be there just in case.
Lauren Tait said she attended high school in Baltimore around the time of Lee’s murder, but she remembers the case got barely any attention back then — “like it happened in a vacuum.” When Serial was released, she became engrossed in the legal saga and listened to “Undisclosed,” another podcast focused on the case.
“We have a long way to go before Americans actually trust the police, and cases like this are one reason,” said Mickey Tait, a native of Australia who previously lived in England and was sporting a British-themed outfit in honor of the funeral Monday.
Upon hearing the news that Syed would be released, he let out an incredulous “Yeah!”
Willie Hamilton, a former cellmate of Syed, filed outside the courthouse after the hearing concluded. He said the two spent many nights behind bars talking about Syed’s case; he maintained his innocence from the beginning.
Hamilton said his friend’s main concern was for his parents — who spent all those years dealing with the trauma and tragedy of his incarceration. Both are now in failing health, but Hamilton said he hopes having their son home will “bring new life to the family.”
“I feel ecstatic,” he said. “But this is long overdue. He had the evidence for so many years.”