A Maryland court on Thursday upheld a judge’s 2016 ruling overturning the murder conviction of Serial‘s Adnan Syed and granting him a new trial, PEOPLE confirms.
“We are thrilled,” Syed’s attorney, Justin Brown, said at a news conference later Thursday in his Baltimore office.
The state’s attorney general can still decide to appeal to Maryland’s highest court, which could keep Syed in prison for another year to 18 months, Brown said.
If there is no appeal, the decision puts the case back to Circuit Court in Baltimore City for a new trial there.
“If the state does not appeal,” Brown said, “things could go pretty fast.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office said in an email to PEOPLE that “we are currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps.”
Syed, who was was sentenced in 2000 to life in prison for the 1999 murder of his 18-year-old Woodlawn High School classmate and ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, had been behind bars for more than a decade when his case was featured in the first season of NPR’s true-crime podcast Serial, triggering widespread scrutiny of his arrest and prosecution.
Brown said he’d spoken Thursday to Syed, 36, and “he asked me to convey his gratitude from the bottom of his heart to everyone who has contributed to this case.”
Efforts by Syed’s supporters to grant him a new trial appeared to be be going nowhere until the wildly popular Serial came out in 2014.
For the first time ever, the podcast’s producers interviewed Syed’s high school classmate Asia McClain, who said she was with Syed during the time prosecutors claimed he had killed Lee.
Syed’s original attorney, who has since died, did not interview or call McClain as an alibi witness for his trial.
“Serial was huge, it’s fueled these efforts and allowed us to keep fighting,” Brown said on Thursday.
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In February 2016, Brown argued during Syed’s post-conviction hearing before Judge Martin Welch that McClain, who now goes by her married name McClain Chapman, should have been called as an alibi witness at trial.
Thursday’s Court of Special Appeals opinion, obtained by PEOPLE, concurred. Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward wrote that a “deficient performance” by Syed’s attorney during his initial trial — her failure to call McClain — “prejudiced Syed’s defense.”
Woodward wrote that “there is a reasonable probability that McClain’s alibi testimony would have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed’s involvement [in] Hae’s murder, and thus ‘the result of the proceedings would have been different.’ ”
At Syed’s 2016 post-conviction hearing, his attorneys questioned the reliability of cell tower data used at his trial to place him in a park the night Lee disappeared and where her buried body was later found.
When Judge Welch of the Circuit Court vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial, he noted questions about the cellphone tower evidence should have been raised by Syed’s original team.
Thursday’s opinion, Brown said, reversed the circuit court on that issue.
Brown said that “we will weigh all options and we will consider getting Adnan out on bail.” His earlier attempt to get Syed released on bail while awaiting a new trial was denied by a judge in 2016.
The state has 30 days to file a petition to appeal this week’s opinion, Brown said.
“We hope they don’t do that,” he said. “We hope they come to the conclusion that this has gone on long enough and let’s take this to a jury in Baltimore City, it’s time to make some resolution and we hope the state sees it the same way we do.”
The Lee family has previously said Syed’s efforts to be freed were painful and that they believed he was her killer.
After the first day of Syed’s hearing for a new trial in 2016, prosecutor General Thiru Vignarajah read aloud a statement from them.
The hearing is forcing “us to relive a nightmare we thought was behind us,” the family said.
Their statement continued: “We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000, and we look forward to bringing this chapter to an end so we can celebrate the memory of Hae instead of celebrating the man who killed her.”
McClain, who did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, wrote in a tweet after hearing word of the Thursday’s ruling: “Of course I’m traveling when the news comes thru. Just hit LAX, turned on my phone and I’m swamped with notifications and comments. Thanks for the support guys. Y’all rock! Now let’s get this #AdnanSyed retrial done.”