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Adnan Syed's lawyer reacts to overturned conviction

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

He just couldn't believe it was real. That's how an attorney for Adnan Syed described her client's reaction yesterday when a judge in Baltimore ordered his release from prison.

ERICA SUTER: The two of us, sitting at counsel table, both broke into tears.

SUMMERS: That Syed's lawyer, Erica Suter. Syed's conviction for the 1999 murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee was also thrown out.

SUTER: You know, he's been incarcerated since he was 17 years old. And then you think about the life - how much happens in 23 years, it's astonishing. And it was an incredibly moving moment.

SUMMERS: The case was the season one subject of the podcast "Serial," which gave it widespread attention. And earlier, I spoke with Erica Suter about what first brought this case to her attention.

SUTER: Well, I've been a post-conviction attorney in Maryland for about 15 years. So as the case was proceeding through sort of all of the post-conviction steps, I was watching it like everybody else and just sort of interested in the procedure more than anything.

SUMMERS: Over the years, you and your client have maintained his innocence. What was key to getting prosecutors to file the motion that vacated his conviction last week?

SUTER: I think the thing that really tipped the scales was this evidence of innocence. There was evidence that somebody else had threatened the victim, had a motive to harm her. And that information wasn't provided to Adnan or to his attorney at the time. And this is something that just came to light recently. I think the state also realized, in taking a fair look with an open mind at all of the evidence, that the case needed to be looked at further.

SUMMERS: Now, prosecutors were careful to say that while Syed could be entitled to a new trial, this is not a declaration of his innocence. And the state now has 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial. How likely do you think that is to happen?

SUTER: For us right in this moment, we are sort of focused on the joy of this occasion. And whether or not the state is going to choose to retry Adnan - there's a pending investigation, and that's, you know, a decision for another day.

SUMMERS: I wonder, Erica, if you have been in touch with anyone representing Hae Min Lee's family or what you would say to them. Her brother said, quote, "This is not a podcast for me." And he said he feels betrayed by prosecutors with yesterday's decision.

SUTER: Well, for us as humans and certainly for my client, I'm an attorney, but I'm also a human being. And for my client, you know, we feel incredible sympathy for what the family of Hae Min Lee's is going through. It's not lost on my client, certainly not lost on me that this case involves real lives. This case involves victims. And this case is incredibly tragic. So out of respect for the family, of course, we want to acknowledge that.

SUMMERS: Erica, I want to ask you, in this moment, after decades in prison, what would Adnan Syed want the world to know about what has happened here?

SUTER: Well, I think what Adnan would want the world to know is that he is incredibly grateful for the support that has risen up for him. And I think what I would want the public to know, as somebody who works as an assistant public defender and in the innocence space, is that these sorts of things happen to defendants where they don't get a fair chance, where the proper rules and procedures aren't followed to the great detriment of defendants. There are so many people who are still incarcerated who still need people to fight for them. These cases often die in the dark, and Adnan has - is incredibly grateful for the platform that he's been given. But there are so many other Adnans out there who are equally deserving of the consideration that he's been given.

SUMMERS: Erica Suter, attorney for Adnan Syed. And she's the director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Erica, thank you for your time.

SUTER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.