A Maryland judge has vacated the 2000 murder conviction of Adnan Syed after prosecutors said there were two other possible suspects in the killing of his former girlfriend who were never disclosed to the defence at trial.
The case gained national attention when the podcast “Serial” raised doubts about his guilt.
Syed, now 42, has always said he was innocent and did not kill Hae Min Lee, who was 18 when she was strangled and buried in a Baltimore park in 1999.
Judge Melissa Phinn of the Circuit Court in Baltimore on Monday ordered Syed to be released from prison and put on home detention. Prosecutors have 30 days to seek a new trial or dismiss the case.
The state’s attorney for Baltimore filed a motion to vacate the conviction on Wednesday following a year-long investigation conducted alongside a public defender representing Syed, in which several problems were found with witnesses and evidence from the trial.
Prosecutors told the court that they were not asserting that Syed was innocent but that they no longer had confidence in “the integrity of the conviction”, and that justice required that Syed at least be afforded a new trial.
They said Syed should be released from prison, where he has spent two decades, while prosecutors complete the investigation and decide whether to seek a new trial.
Prosecutors said that they had found new information about two alternative suspects, whom they have not named. Their identities were known to the original prosecutors but not disclosed to the defence as required by law.
Prosecutors also decided a key witness and the detective who investigated the murder were unreliable. They also found new information that cast doubt on the cellphone data prosecutors relied upon at trial to place Syed at the scene of the murder.
The podcast “Serial”, produced by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, drew national attention to the case in 2014.
Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, said in a statement that “the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable”.
Young Lee, the victim’s brother, told the court he was shocked and his family felt betrayed that the prosecutors had reversed course after standing by the conviction for decades.
“It’s really tough to go through this again and again and again,” he said. “It’s a living nightmare.”
Video footage from Monday showed Syed, dressed in a white shirt and a blue tie, waving to a crowd of supporters outside the courtroom as he was being escorted to a vehicle that drove him away.
The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that pushes for criminal justice reform, welcomed Syed’s release, saying that the case underscores the issue of prosecutors illegally withholding exculpatory evidence.
“The integrity of the legal system requires accountability for not only Mr Syed’s wrongful conviction but also the pain the State’s unlawful conduct caused to Hae Min Lee’s family,” the group said in a statement.