After a Baltimore Circuit Court judge overturned Adnan Syed’s murder conviction Monday, she ordered that he be released from custody and placed on home detention monitored by a private company.
Judge Melissa Phinn outlined exactly what Syed, who is still charged in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee, is allowed to do while city prosecutors determine in the next month whether to retry the 41-year-old in his high school ex-girlfriend’s death or drop the charges.
Syed is under the supervision of ALERT Inc., one of a handful of private home detention companies that operates in Maryland. According to Phinn’s order, Syed is allowed to leave his family’s home in Baltimore County to do the following:
- Work or seek employment.
- Meet with his lawyer.
- Attend “personal or family medical appointments.”
- Meet with ALERT personnel.
The precise terms of Syed’s home detention give more context to his comparatively dignified release from custody Monday, which came on the heels of city prosecutors’ move to vacate his conviction.
Prosecutors are not ready to say that Syed is innocent, but cited the results of an approximately yearlong review of the case, conducted alongside his defense attorney, in asking for the conviction to be undone.
The probe, prosecutors said, revealed two alternative suspects in Lee’s killing, known to authorities who investigated the homicide but not disclosed to Syed’s defense then or thereafter. City prosecutors said the lack of disclosure was a serious violation of the law, and prevented Syed from getting a fair trial. Along with since-discredited evidence used against Syed at trial, prosecutors said the issues raised were enough to doubt the integrity of his guilty finding.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state in Syed’s various appeals, disputed that information was withheld from the defense within hours of Syed’s conviction being overturned. His public comments about the case have triggered a pointed and public back-and-forth with Mosby.
In their motion, Mosby’s prosecutors requested Syed be released pending their decision on how to proceed.
In court Monday, Phinn agreed.
She ordered Syed released immediately: Officers unshackled him in her courtroom and attached a GPS ankle monitor before he descended the steps of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse to cheers from supporters who likely came to know of his case from the hit podcast “Serial,” released in 2014 and downloaded hundreds of millions of times.
The monitor strapped to Syed’s ankle came from ALERT, the private home detention company.
Founded in 1985, the business’s website boasts that it tracks clients “with far more security than the traditional probation system.” The company says it collaborates with the court to determine what activities a person ordered on home detention is allowed to do, and notifies the judge who assigned home detention if the person violates the terms of their release.
Unlike home detention overseen by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, people on private home detention have to pay for it. Maryland law says the state should set aside federal funds to pay for the home detention of those who qualify for it but cannot afford an attorney.
Reached briefly by phone, Tim Schlauch, ALERT’s president and executive director, did not comment. He could not be reached later.
Private home detention companies are licensed by the state corrections department and are audited at least once every two years by the Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards, Mark Vernarelli, the state agency’s spokesman, said in an email.
The companies “must also submit certain information and reports to the courts,” Vernarelli said.
With his conviction overturned, Syed, who has maintained his innocence since he was 17 years old, finds himself in an unusual legal-limbo: Free from jail or prison for the first time in 23 years, yet still facing the charges — premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment — that put him behind bars to begin with.
Phinn set a deadline of 30 days from her ruling Monday for prosecutors to drop the charges or set a new trial date. The state’s attorney’s office said its decision is contingent upon an ongoing investigation into the alternative suspects as well as additional DNA testing, ordered in March, of evidence collected in Lee’s death.
According to the law, Syed is someone charged with murder awaiting trial. People pending trial for violent crimes as serious as murder are almost never released before trial, according to several legal experts.
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“I’ve had people released on murder charges pretrial, but it’s rare,” said attorney Andrew I. Alperstein. “But there’s nothing ordinary about his case in the posture it’s in at this point.”
Alperstein was one of five defense attorneys who reviewed the order for The Baltimore Sun. The lawyers said the order for home detention was fairly standard, if a little lenient.
Defense attorney Donald Wright said judges in the past have allowed his clients to work existing jobs.
“I’ve never seen them be able to leave and just go look for a job,” Wright said.
He described the last conditions of Phinn’s order in Syed’s case as “unusual.”
At the discretion of ALERT, Phinn’s order said, Syed is allowed to have no more than four hours of “personal time” a week for “shopping, banking and personal hygiene and grooming.” Such errands must be coordinated ahead of time with ALERT.
“No window shopping is permitted,” Phinn’s order said.