'Serial' podcast subject Adnan Syed asks for release from prison

Adnan Syed, the "Serial" podcast subject whose murder conviction was overturned this summer, is asking a judge to let him out of jail as he awaits a new trial.

Syed, 35, has been in custody for more than 17 years.

In a petition filed Monday, his attorneys say he would pose no danger to the community and that they have a social worker lined up to help him transition out of prison, where they say he has had no behavior problems.

His attorneys write of the "crumbling" case against him, and raise new accusations about his former co-defendant, Jay Wilds, who was a key witness against him in his 2000 trial.

"Syed has been waiting 17 years to get back into court to prove his innocence," his attorneys wrote. "With that moment within his grasp, there is no reason to think he would now abscond from justice and risk everything he has accomplished to date."

Syed was convicted by a Baltimore jury of first-degree murder in 2000 in the strangling death of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.

Lee, a classmate at Woodlawn High School, disappeared in January 1999. Her body was found the next month, buried in Leakin Park.

The killing, investigation and trial became the subject of the blockbuster "Serial" podcast in 2014, which raised questions about the case against Syed.

It is rare for a defendant who is charged with a violent crime punishable by life in prison to be released pending trial. But Syed's attorneys say the law allows it, and that Syed is a good candidate for such an exception.

Syed has been detained since his arrest in February 1999. After his conviction in February 2000, his attorneys launched a series of appeals. This past June, a Baltimore judge fund that his initial trial attorney had provided ineffective assistance, vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial.

Prosecutors are appealing that ruling, a process the defense says could take years. The state attorney general's office, which is representing prosecutors in the case, declined to comment Monday.

Steve Silverman, a Baltimore attorney who is not involved in the case, said judges are "historically reluctant to give a bail with charges of this nature."

But "the unusual circumstances involving the granting of a new trial and questioning of tenuous evidence and procedure," he said, "could tilt the scales towards a court considering a bail."

"If there was a bail, it would most likely be a very high bail, and whether someone or a bondsman wants to take a risk is another question."

Syed had no history of violence before his arrest, his attorneys say, and has been a model inmate while locked up in a maximum-security prison for 17 years.

"Prisons are among the most violent places in our society," they wrote, "yet Syed has not been cited for a single violent act in 17 years in that environment."

In Department of Corrections records, his attorneys say, officials call him an "excellent" worker who "requires minimal supervision" and is "always very respectful to staff." He was caught in 2009 with a contraband cellphone, they say, but has never been cited for a fight or insubordination.

In deciding whether to grant bail, the court takes into consideration whether a defendant is a flight risk. His attorney say that's not a concern in Syed's case.

They spent a significant portion of the petition attacking the state's case, including Wilds, who testified that Syed showed him Lee's body and told him he strangled her. Wilds said they buried the body together.

Wilds pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and served no time.

Syed's attorneys say Wilds' story has shifted and changed, and that his credibility has been further undermined by his interactions with law enforcement in recent years.

Since he gave his testimony, they wrote, "Wilds has been arrested, convicted or investigated by police more than 20 times," including an "ominous history of being charged for incidents of rage and violence against women."

Efforts to reach Wilds on Monday were unsuccessful.

Syed's attorneys pulled police reports involving Wilds and contacted one ex-girlfriend who said Wilds had choked her out of jealousy.

"Under these circumstances, the nature of the evidence in this case tilts decidedly in favor or releasing Syed before another jury has the unenviable task of sorting through the inconsistencies in the brand-new story that Wilds will inevitably tell," they wrote.

Wilds did not participate in "Serial," which challenged his account of the events. In an interview with The Intercept online publication, Wilds said he had not been truthful with police about some aspects of his story but maintained that he helped dispose of the body.

"There's nothing that's gonna change the fact that this guy drove up in front of my grandmother's house, popped the trunk, and had his dead girlfriend in the trunk," Wilds told The Intercept.

Silverman, the attorney who is not involved in the case, said judges deciding bail are supposed to evaluate the nature of the charges, the risk of flight and danger to the community — not the disputed facts of the case.

Still, he said, such arguments can often "leak into the proceeding."

"It may not be statutorily correct to argue facts at a bail hearing, but it happens," Silverman said. "Judges are humans, and they will consciously or subconsciously take into consideration the likelihood of success of the prosecution."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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