Adnan Syed’s attorney talks about his release what it says about criminal justice system

After 23 years in prison, Adnan Syed was released Monday with a cheering crowd of supporters to greet him. A judge vacated his sentence after the state’s attorney for Baltimore said the original prosecutors did not turn over evidence that could have helped Syed, including information on other possible suspects. Syed's attorney Erica Suter joined Lisa Desjardins to discuss the case.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A judge in Baltimore has overturned the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in the 1999 murder of his high school classmate Hae Min Lee.

    It's a case that has received national attention in recent years after Syed's story was chronicle by the popular true crime podcast "Serial."

    Lisa Desjardins has more.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, after 23 years in prison, Adnan Syed was released yesterday with a cheering crowd of supporters to greet him. A judge vacated his sentence after prosecutors said last week that his conviction should not stand.

    The state's attorney for Baltimore says the original prosecutors did not turn over evidence that could have helped Syed. That includes problems with past evidence about Syed's location and information on other possible suspects.

  • Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore State’s Attorney:

    Through our review, our reinvestigation revealed that the original prosecutors and the subsequent prosecutors in the attorney general's office failed to disclose relevant information about alternative suspects, one of whom threatened to kill the victim and had motive to kill the victim, and both of whom had a pattern of violence against women.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    She and other prosecutors now have a month to decide if they will retry Syed.

    I'm joined now by his attorney, Erica Suter. She also serves as the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

    Erica, this is quite a sudden turn in this nationally known case. But questions about this case have been raised for years. Why do you think it took so long to get here?

  • Erica Suter, Attorney For Adnan Syed:

    I think — well, first, thank you so much for having me.

    Anybody who works in the innocence space and for many criminal defense attorneys, reversing a wrongful conviction can take years, sometimes decades. And so, for the public, though it seems like this is unusual that a case would take that long, it's actually sort of consistent with our experience in these kinds of cases.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One of the issues here are so-called Brady violations, when prosecutors don't tell the defense about evidence, in this case, about two other potential suspects and information they had about them.

    How critical is that information here and generally?

  • Erica Suter:

    It's absolutely critical.

    The prosecution has an obligation to turn over Brady evidence. So, Brady evidence is evidence that could be exculpatory, meaning evidence you didn't do it, or it could be mitigating — impeaching, meaning evidence that could challenge another witness' testimony.

    And it's important because we should have a fair system, a just system. And when the state is hiding evidence that you should be able to use to defend yourself, the result is what we have in Adnan's case, where somebody could spend years or decades in prison for a crime they did not commit.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And this was evidence that none of his previous lawyers knew about; is that right? How did — when did you first learn about this?

  • Erica Suter:

    Well, the state and I in this case were working collaboratively in this investigation.

    And the assistant state's attorney, Becky Feldman, reviewed the state's file. There were numerous boxes, and she turned over this information to the defense, as she should. And it was during that time that we came across these documents.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For the family of the victim, Hae Min Lee, of course, this has been a nightmare as well.

    Here's their attorney speaking yesterday and saying that prosecutors really didn't give them any warning this was coming.

    Steven Kelly, Attorney for Hae Min Lee's Family: They absolutely did not want to afford this victim any meaningful opportunity to address this motion. My clients, all they wanted was information. They want the truth to come out. If the truth is that someone else killed their sister, daughter, they want to know that more than anybody.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also, Maryland's attorney general, who previously worked on this case, said that no one called him or other prosecutors who've worked on it before.

    And my question to you is, what do you think of this criticism, both from the victim's family and from other former prosecutors, that the state's attorney's office didn't reach out, really didn't talk to them about why they did what they did?

  • Erica Suter:

    Well, of course, I could say, on behalf of my client, and, of course, just as a human being, we have enormous sympathy and compassion for what the victim's family is going through.

    And, as far as what the state did or shouldn't do, our system is set up as an adversarial system, and there are obligations of the state and there are obligations of the defense, and there are rules and regulations about sort of what our different roles are.

    And so we, in terms of being able to have contact with the victims, in terms of being — of giving notice to other prosecutors offices, those all fall within sort of what the state's duties and obligations are. And so, that, I would just sort of defer to the state.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is your client, but this is also your field of expertise.

    You mentioned Brady violations. How rare is this kind of change and how rare are those violations?

  • Erica Suter:

    So, they're actually not rare at all.

    In 44 percent of exonerations throughout the nation, 44 percent are the result of the state withholding evidence of innocence. So, nearly half of all exonerations throughout the country that are in our registry of exonerations involve somebody — involve the state keeping evidence of innocence from the defendant.

    And in Baltimore, in particular, 80 percent of exonerations on record involve withheld evidence. So it is extraordinarily common. And it shows how sort of important it is that the state follow their obligations, because, when they don't, you have cases like Adnan Syed's.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How's your client doing today? He has not been declared innocent yet, I should say. How are you both doing and what happens now?

  • Erica Suter:

    So, Adnan Syed has been incarcerated since he was 17 years old. When you think about 23 years of life and how much of a different position we're all in then from 23 years ago, just imagine that he is processing that sort of minute by minute.

    He is extraordinarily grateful to all of his supporters, all the people who believed in him. He's very happy. But this is a lot to process. And so he's doing well, but he's really just kind of taking it step by step.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Are you concerned that he could be retried?

  • Erica Suter:

    I think, in the moment, this was a long-fought battle, a long time coming. And so we're really focused on the joy of this occasion.

    And what the state decides in the future to do is a decision for another day, but whatever they decide to do, we will be prepared.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Erica Suter, a momentous day for you and your client.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Erica Suter:

    Thank you so much.

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