- Doug Colbertprofessor at the University of Maryland School of Law, founder of the Lawyers at Bail Project and the first attorney to represent Adnan Syed in 1999.
Adnan Syed, the subject of the popular podcast “Serial,” was released Monday after a Maryland judge vacated his murder conviction due to evidence withheld during the trial that might have helped exonerate him. Syed spent 23 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee as a teenager in 1999. He has not been declared legally innocent, and prosecutors could decide to retry the case, but that appears unlikely. We speak with Syed’s first attorney, Doug Colbert, who says Brady violations, in which prosecutors fail to disclose evidence to the defense, happen “much too often.” He argues, “There are many other people innocent of their crimes who should not have been convicted.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We look now at the remarkable development this week in Baltimore, Maryland, when, after 23 years in prison, Adnan Syed was released Monday when a Maryland judge vacated his murder conviction. The 41-year-old Adnan Syed had spent 23 years behind bars after being convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. His case gained international attention when the award-winning podcast Serial reexamined his conviction and raised new questions about his guilt. A Baltimore County circuit court judge has ordered new DNA testing in the case, tests that were not available at the time of Syed’s conviction. He could still face a new trial, though that’s unlikely. State’s Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby spoke on Monday.
MARILYN MOSBY: We’re not yet declaring — not yet declaring Adnan Syed is innocent, but we are declaring that in the interest of fairness and justice, he is entitled to a new trial.
AMY GOODMAN: The motion by Mosby’s office came after the creation of a Sentencing Review Unit in 2020. Those eligible to apply for review were juveniles who had served at least 25 years in prison. Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, sought a review by the unit, and Mosby’s office agreed to fully reexamine his conviction. The review also stems from reforms to address corruption in the office by allowing the reexamination of trials where, quote, “new evidence has called into question the integrity of the conviction.” When the sentencing unit reviewed Adnan’s case, it found, quote, “significant reliability issues” with key evidence, including questionable cellphone location data used to link him to the murder. This week, Marilyn Mosby said she’ll look into whether two alternative suspects may have murdered Hae Min Lee, including one who threatened to “make her disappear” and kill her, but the evidence was not presented to the defense at the time of the trial.
Adnan’s case first gained international attention when the award-winning podcast Serial reexamined his conviction and raised new questions about his guilt. In a new episode of Serial released Tuesday, the host and co-creator, Sarah Koenig, described the evidence of the two potential suspects of Hae Min Lee’s murder that was not shown to Syed’s defense team. It’s called a Brady violation.
SARAH KOENIG: The motion to vacate does not tell us a new story of the crime. It doesn’t lay out an alternate theory of who killed Hae Min Lee. Instead, the motion lays out how the system malfunctioned back then and how little we know now. The headline of the state’s motion is that they’ve developed more evidence about two people who might have been involved in the crime, but whom they say weren’t properly ruled out as suspects. They don’t name these people; they just call them “the suspect” or “the suspects,” because they say the investigation is ongoing. …
The motion explains this Brady violation regarding one of the two alternate suspects the prosecutors are not naming. And the motion says they’ve also got other new information about these two suspects. One of them had a connection to the location where Hae Min Lee’s car was found after she disappeared. One or both of them have relevant criminal histories, mostly crimes committed after Adnan’s trial, one of them for a series of sexual assaults.
I know who these suspects are. One of them was investigated at the time, submitted to a couple of polygraphs. The other was investigated also, but not with much vigor, as far as I can tell. He’s now in prison for sexual assault. But no one has charged either of these guys in connection with Hae Min Lee’s murder, so I’m not going to name them, either.
That’s all the new information they found about the case, but the motion continues. They also looked at the old information. And now they’re saying they’ve lost faith in that, too.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Baltimore, where we’re joined by Douglas Colbert, who in 1999 was the first attorney representing Adnan Syed. He’s a professor of law at University of Maryland School of Law.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Douglas. If you can start off — well, describe the scene in the courtroom, then outside, as Marilyn Mosby made the announcement, and Adnan Syed, your client from more than 20 years ago, walked out, kind of a free man.
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Thank you very much, Amy, for having me.
And all I can say is that when we saw Adnan walking out of the courthouse, it was a feeling of being overwhelmed with joy. It was a sight that we could never be sure would ever happen. And it only took place because he had the perfect and ideal combination of the dedicated lawyer, Erica Suter, and before her, he had another just brilliant lawyer, and then we had the prosecuting attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who really embraced the meaning of a minister of justice. And finally, the judge understood that she was required to act in the interest of justice, and she did so, and she released him. The chains came off of him in the courtroom, and there was a gasp. And people realized that he was going to be freed. And we waited outside and waited. And then, when he finally came out with his family, it was just so moving and so emotional an experience.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Doug Colbert, I wanted to ask you about this issue of the Brady law violations. Over decades of covering criminal trials, I’ve been often astounded by how often this occurs. And I think Erica Suter, one of Syed’s lawyers and the director of the Innocence Project, also said that of some 3,000 people who have been exonerated of convictions across the country, in 44% of the cases — nearly half — evidence was not disclosed at trial that could point to their innocence. And this is an example of prosecutors playing — pushing the achievement of a conviction over justice. But rarely are prosecutors then held accountable for what’s, in essence, prosecutorial misconduct. I’m wondering your thoughts about this issue of the Brady law violations.
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Well, it’s a constitutional and ethical responsibility of every prosecutor to disclose evidence that tends to show that a person is innocent, the accused is innocent. And shamefully, Juan, Brady violations occur much too often, and those are only the ones that we learn about. And there are no consequences to prosecutors who fail to disclose. It’s almost as though the disciplinary procedures don’t apply to prosecutors who fail to turn over evidence.
In Adnan’s case, he served 23-and-a-half years. And had the defense lawyers had the information that other suspects were being investigated and that they could easily have been the actual killer, this whole tragedy would never have taken place. And it’s a tragedy not only for Adnan and other — many other prisoners who are still in prison. He is not the only one by far; there are many other people who are innocent of their crimes, who should not have been convicted. But it’s also a tragedy for Hae Min Lee and her family, that’s had to suffer and now has to wait until the actual killer is found.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the detective in the case, Ritz, who apparently in another case also was found guilty of misconduct? But it only took now, the prosecutor’s office reviewing that — they found those handwritten notes about the other people that might have been responsible for the murder. I also think it’s interesting that the prosecutor who reviewed all this is formerly a public defender. She had just come into the prosecutor’s office, who had a very different perspective.
DOUGLAS COLBERT: And that — the prosecutor, Becky Feldman, who was in charge of the integrity unit, that unit only came about because we had a prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, who decided that was going to be one of the places where she was going to enhance the administration of justice. And Becky Feldman did an outstanding job. The report — or, the motion that she filed was thorough, and it was verifiable information.
But, you know, when we have a situation, you know, when we have to rely on prosecutors to do their job, and then we have police officers like Detective Ritz and [MacGillivary] — I’m sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, but a second detective — you know, there is such a rush for judgment to try to clear cases, to try to find, get, obtain a conviction, that the officers lose sight and the prosecutor loses sight of what justice means for an accused person.
AMY GOODMAN: Doug, let me —
DOUGLAS COLBERT: The fact that —
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip —
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — of Sarah Koenig again, again this —
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — Serial podcast, that broke open this story, albeit in 2014. She broke down the motion that vacated the conviction, and described the role of this detective, Ritz, the leading investigator in Hae Min Lee’s murder.
SARAH KOENIG: At the end of the motion, Becky Feldman tacked on a “by the way” final section about one of the two main detectives on the case, Bill Ritz, who was accused of misconduct in another murder case that went to trial the same year Adnan did. In that case, Detective Ritz was accused of manipulating evidence, fabricating evidence, not disclosing exculpatory evidence, not following up on evidence that had pointed to a different suspect. In 2016, the guy convicted in that case was exonerated. Ritz was one of the two detectives who repeatedly interviewed Jay Wilds.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can take it from there, Jay Wilds, the key prosecution witness, who has changed his story over and over, and then the prosecution saying to the jury, recognizing he was unreliable, “Don’t worry. The cellphone pinging information backs up what he says,” Doug Colbert?
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Amy, I was present at the first trial, which people are not speaking about these days. But the first trial resulted in a mistrial, a case in which the judge interrupted the trial. And I was speaking to the jurors as they left the courtroom. And I had sat through Jay Wilds’ testimony, and he gave different versions of what happened at key points of the testimony. At four or five different times, he contradicted himself. Now, if you get that once in a trial, that becomes your reasonable doubt for a jury to acquit the defendant. But this individual witness was so ineffective, it was a pitiful performance, and yet when he had a second chance because the judge declared a mistrial, that then allowed the prosecution to, quote-unquote, “clean up” the witness’s testimony.
I wasn’t there for the second trial, but I can tell you, when I asked the jurors coming out of the courtroom, you know, what did they think of the prosecution’s case, the four or five that I spoke to, in unison, said, “What case?” And when I asked them how would they have returned a verdict, guilty or not guilty, once again, it was a resounding “not guilty.” So, it was so disappointing to have lost that jury and that trial.
But Jay Wilds was somebody who was a suspect himself for quite a while. And just getting back to Detective Ritz, I just want to point out, Amy, that on the day that Adnan was arrested, his co-counsel Chris Flohr and I went over to the police precinct. It was a rainy evening on a Saturday night. And we tried to gain entry so we could speak to our client, and they would not allow us inside. So we were not able to even give our client advice during the interrogation. But at no time did Adnan make any incriminating statement. He always maintained his innocence. And he has maintained his innocence to this day.
AMY GOODMAN: Doug, we just have 10 seconds. What happens next? Do you expect a new trial will be called? I mean, he’s wearing an ankle bracelet, is that right? How free is he?
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Yeah, well, he has to wear the ankle bracelet, but he’s with his family, and that’s the biggest thing right now. We can see him. He can see us. He has to wear the ankle bracelet at least for the next 30 days. And what’s going to happen is that Ms. Mosby is going to wait until she gets the forensics back to see if the DNA shows anything. And if it doesn’t, I expect that she will dismiss the charge, end this nightmare for Adnan and his family.
AMY GOODMAN: Doug Colbert, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law, the first attorney to represent Adnan Syed. That was in 1999.
DOUGLAS COLBERT: Thank you very much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Coming up, a new film is out. It’s the heiress Abigail Disney’s film about her own family, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Stay with us.