'Serial' podcast subject, Adnan Syed, could be entitled to millions for wrongful conviction
If an administrative law judge certifies his innocence, he would be eligible for significant compensation for being incarcerated for 23 years
By Maya Lora
BALTIMORE — With the murder charges against him dropped, Adnan Syed may pursue a declaration of innocence that carries a potential $2.2 million payout from the state of Maryland.
Three weeks after a Baltimore judge overturned Syed’s conviction in the 1999 killing of former high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby suddenly announced Oct. 11 that her office had dropped all charges because of newly tested DNA evidence.
Mosby said the next step is for Syed’s attorney to seek to have his innocence certified by an administrative law judge. If that’s approved, he would be eligible for significant financial, educational and health care benefits in compensation for being incarcerated for 23 years.
Syed, 41, has always maintained his innocence. As attempts to appeal his 2000 murder conviction failed, questions about the evidence against him rose as a result of the “Serial” podcast. Then, the prosecution and the defense told the Baltimore Circuit Court this fall that prosecutors decades ago failed to inform the defense of evidence about two alternative suspects. Mosby followed up by saying DNA testing of Lee’s shoes, which were not previously examined for genetic material, found the DNA of four people — none of them Syed.
People who’ve been exonerated in Maryland said whatever the state might pay Syed couldn’t be nearly enough. Kirk Bloodsworth, who served over eight years in prison and was on death row for the killing of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton, which he didn’t commit, said the money is a “drop in the bucket” compared with what is lost.
“I wish him the best. They really messed that man’s life up and they owe him everything,” said Bloodsworth, who has been awarded more than $700,000 from the state. “They should take care of him for the rest of his life.”
Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said the financial landscape for wrongfully convicted prisoners is “pretty bleak” upon release, so compensation is important.
“Most of them are coming out after multiple decades. So they’re coming out typically at middle age, sometimes a little past middle age,” Armbrust said. “Our clients are coming out mostly to nothing, and they have to do, you know, starting at a much older age, what most of us were able to start doing in our 20s.”
The group works to prevent and reverse the conviction of innocent people in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, according to its website. Armbrust said of the 38 fully exonerated individuals associated with the organization, including 13 in Maryland, 27 received some form of compensation, with one petition pending. Most of them were compensated in 2010 or later.
The federal government, 38 states and the District of Columbia have compensation statutes, although payouts vary, according to the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit that works to free innocent people and prevent wrongful convictions.
In Maryland, new compensation standards went into effect last year under the Walter Lomax Act. Five exonerees have received compensation since, including four who got payments to supplement awards doled out before the new law.
Bloodsworth, 61, was one of those. He was convicted in 1985. DNA evidence cleared him, and he was pardoned in 1993. The next year, the state awarded Bloodsworth a lump sum of $300,000, according to a chart prepared by the Maryland Board of Public Works. Last year, he was awarded an additional $420,000, to be paid out over one fiscal year.
A wrongfully convicted individual can become eligible for compensation via two paths: through a pardon from the governor or by proving their innocence by presenting “clear and convincing evidence” to a state administrative law judge through the Office of Administrative Hearings.
In the latter process, a former defendant must show they were convicted and imprisoned for a felony; the conviction was reversed or vacated and the charges dismissed (or they were acquitted in a retrial); and they didn’t commit the crime, said Emily Witty, a spokesperson for Mosby’s office.
If the administrative law judge finds an individual to be innocent and entitled to compensation, the Board of Public Works must approve a payment plan. The person is entitled to an initial payment equal to the state’s annual median household income, currently $94,384, which the state must pay within 60 days of receiving the judge’s order. The board has discretion as to how it will pay the remaining amount due, but must do so within six fiscal years.
Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, declined through a spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to comment for this article. At a news conference the day Syed’s charges were dropped, Suter said she’d begin the certification process “as soon as possible.”
Both the local prosecutor’s office and the Maryland Attorney General’s Office are parties to such proceedings in the Office of Administrative Hearings and can appeal an administrative law judge’s decision to declare a former inmate eligible or ineligible for compensation.
Asked about Syed’s eligibility for compensation, Mosby has said her office would work with Suter’s “to ensure that that process is done.”
Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, which represented the state during Syed’s appeals, has disputed that evidence was ever withheld from defense attorneys. Asked whether it would object if Syed pursued compensation, spokesperson Raquel Coombs declined to comment.
Under the Lomax Act, those who’ve been incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit are entitled to compensation determined by a formula that uses the statewide median household income and number of days they were in prison. If declared innocent, Syed would receive roughly $2.2 million.
Other forms of compensation include up to five years of education and housing, job training and at least five years of health care, as well as reimbursement for anything a former defendant has paid in court fines, fees and restitution.
Attorney Neel Lalchandani of Brown Goldstein & Levy has represented clients who sought compensation, including Bloodsworth. He said that in his experience, when someone wins a fight for financial compensation, they also receive the full slate of benefits. All the cases he’s dealt with so far have been resolved in under a year.
The law governing compensation for victims of wrongful conviction is named after Lomax, who spent nearly 40 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in a 1967 killing. Lomax, 74, was released from prison in 2006 and exonerated in 2014.
In 2019, he was awarded over $3 million. It remains the largest such payout by the state, according to the chart compiled by the Board of Public Works.
Before the Lomax Act, any payments were at the discretion of the three-member public works board, which consists of the governor, state comptroller and state treasurer.
“It was extremely arduous, to say the least,” Lomax said. “It took me eight years to really clear my name and then five more just to be compensated for it.”
Lomax fought to get the new legislation passed and signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to standardize payouts. He, Bloodsworth and Armbrust agree the new system works much better than the previous iteration.
“What was at issue for me is that they had really taken me through as much as they did, just to even consider awarding me,” Lomax said. “I’ve been very fortunate, extremely fortunate. And the relief that I felt was that because I understood what that experience was like and knew what I had to go through, just in order to get to that point, is that no one else would have to have that experience.”
Armbrust said people often use their compensation to build a life after prison.
“For the most part, exonerees are using this money to buy homes to, you know, take care of family, to pay for education,” Armbrust said. “People are really using this to provide for basic necessities. And there are going to be people who spend money on things others would consider frivolous. But frankly, like if somebody spent 35 years in prison, who am I to judge if they want a nice car?”
Only very recent developments have introduced the possibility that Syed could become eligible for any such compensation.
Last fall, Suter asked prosecutors in Mosby’s office to review the case under Maryland’s new Juvenile Restoration Act. It allows people accused of crimes as children and teens to appeal their sentences after serving 20 years because research now shows human brains are still developing during the teenage years. Syed was 17 when he was arrested.
Syed seemed like a candidate for release under the law. But had he been freed that way, he would still have had the conviction on his record, meaning he wouldn’t be eligible for exoneration or compensation.
However, members of a sentencing review unit in the prosecutor’s office said they made several discoveries — including the alternative suspects, disclosure issues and unreliable evidence — that raised questions about Syed’s conviction.
Further review led to a joint motion by prosecutors and the defense to vacate his conviction. Mosby’s office later officially dropped the charges.
Attorney Steve Kelly, who represents Lee’s mother and brother, said they’re in shock about the recent developments, which unfolded rapidly despite their efforts to intervene. They appealed the decision to overturn Syed’s conviction, arguing they didn’t get proper notice about a hearing and couldn’t testify in person. A judge ruled Oct. 12 that the Lee family has 15 days to explain why its appeal should continue.
As for the possibility that Syed could receive compensation, Kelly said Lee’s family hasn’t even had time to process the circumstances of his release.
“It hasn’t come up. It’s not even on their radar at this point,” Kelly said.
Bloodsworth and Lomax said no amount of money could soothe the pain of spending years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
“They should give him every dime they can and help him throughout his life and beg for forgiveness for what they’ve done to him,” Bloodsworth said. “He’s got to put it all together and try to, somehow, pull 23 years out of his soul and get on with his life. And let me tell you, that’s no easy task.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Lee O. Sanderlin and Lea Skene contributed to this article.