Adnan Syed Can Be Tried Again – Why Double Jeopardy Doesn't Apply to Him

A Baltimore judge vacated the more than two-decade-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed Monday roughly eight years after his case was featured in the debut season of the popular podcast "Serial," which cast doubt on his culpability in the strangulation death of high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

The ruling by Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn found the state of Maryland violated the law by refusing to share evidence that could have bolstered Syed's defense in the 1999 murder case, whose chronicling 14 years later divided members of the public and the legal community alike.

But it also represents a vindication for supporters of Syed—who has vehemently asserted his innocence in the case—almost six years after his conviction was initially overturned.

What Happened?

In 2000, Syed was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years after an accessory to the case claimed he had killed Lee and shown him her body in his car.

Syed has long maintained his innocence in the case, and once turned down the prospect of early release on the condition he plead guilty.

In 2016, his initial conviction was vacated after it was found his defense attorney in the original case, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to contact an alibi witness on Syed's behalf and provided ineffective counsel. Several higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, declined to take up the case, however, leaving Syed in legal purgatory until Phinn's decision Monday.

Syed was allowed to go home, albeit with a GPS tracking device. However, his freedom could be temporary.

Adnan Syed
Above, Adnan Syed is pictured at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse on February 5, 2016. A Baltimore judge vacated Syed's more than two-decade-old murder conviction on Monday, roughly eight years after his case was featured in the debut season of the popular podcast "Serial." Reuters

How So?

Syed is now facing a retrial in the case, in which he would theoretically be given new counsel to defend himself against the state and the now 22-year-old evidence against him. It would mark yet another legal proceeding in what has already been years of appeals, and seemingly another retread of evidence already mulled over.

Typically, defendants in such a case would be protected by the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits anyone from being prosecuted twice for the same crime. However, a retrial against Syed would prospectively be for a completely different crime, one that he has not yet been convicted of.

What Crime?

According to a September 14 motion to vacate by Maryland's State Attorney for the City of Baltimore Marilyn J. Mosby, the evidence also includes new revelations of two other potential suspects in Lee's death, fundamentally altering Syed's role in the case and, in particular, raising new questions about the largely circumstantial evidence used to convict him.

Depending on how the charges are altered—or what crimes other suspects are charged with—Syed's role in the death of Lee could be downgraded to being an accessory to the fact or some other lesser charge, which would be considered a completely different crime than the one he was initially accused (and convicted) of.

Can They Do That?

Yes. And it's been done before, albeit by different means.

The most prominent example is likely that of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who was tried for murder six times and saw four of his convictions overturned on appeals after a number of mistrials, forcing the state to vacate his death sentences. However, Flowers was never acquitted in those cases, allowing the court to essentially start over.

An imperfect—and hypothetical—example could be found at the federal level. In 2019, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed a decision that allowed states and the federal government to prosecute separate violations of one of their laws even if the two violations overlap, creating the opportunity for someone to be tried for the same incident twice.