Appeals court to hear arguments over vacating of Adnan Syed’s conviction
An appeals court is expected to hear arguments Thursday on whether it should order a do-over of the proceeding that led to “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed’s conviction being vacated.
The brother of the teenager that Syed had previously been convicted of killing is arguing that his rights as the representative of a crime victim were violated because he was not given enough time to prepare meaningfully for the hearing at which Syed’s conviction was vacated.
Young Lee, the brother of Hae Min Lee, argued in a brief filed by his lawyers that the state’s attorney gave him less than one business day’s notice of the hearing, and that prosecutors did not provide enough detail for him to understand their bid to vacate the conviction.
“Hae Min Lee’s family and the public deserve more, and that is what the law requires,” said David Sanford, the Lee family’s lawyer. “At this point, the integrity of our judicial system and respect for the rule of law are at stake.”
In a filing, Syed’s lawyers noted that after the conviction was vacated, prosecutors had dropped the charges against Syed – meaning Syed is no longer a defendant in a criminal case. They called the Lee family’s move to redo the hearing “unprecedented” in how it posited a victim’s family member as a party in the matter.
“Victims do not prosecute charges, they do not decide which witnesses to call, and they do not cross-examine those witnesses,” Syed’s lawyers wrote. “Giving Appellant what he wants will not just result in the re-imprisonment of Mr. Syed for a crime he did not commit, it will wreak havoc on our criminal justice system.”
The Maryland appeals court hearing is yet another twist in a case that has wound a circuitous path through the court system for more than two decades and attracted international attention when it was featured on “Serial” in 2014.
Syed, then 17, was arrested in February 1999 for Hae Min Lee’s killing. Authorities said the 18-year-old, who Syed had once dated, had been strangled. Syed was convicted of murder in 2000 and sentenced to life behind bars.
In the ensuing years, Syed and his representative waged a long but unsuccessful battle to have his conviction overturned, including after “Serial” shined a spotlight on the case.
Then in September 2022, at the request of Baltimore city prosecutors, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn vacated conviction, deciding that there were problems in how prosecutors had turned over evidence to defense attorneys decades ago. Young Lee, who spoke briefly at the hearing where the judge issued her decision, said that the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction left him feeling “betrayed.”
“That’s really tough for me to swallow, and especially for my mom,” he said.
Prosecutors wrote in court filings of two other alternate suspects. Those people, though, were known to investigators previously, prosecutors have said, and they have not been charged in the case. The investigation is ongoing, authorities said.
Lee has said he was not against more investigation. “Knowing that there could be someone out there free for killing my sister – it’s tough,” he said.
Then-Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose office dropped the case after the conviction was vacated, has said that she understood Lee’s brother’s feelings, but that Syed was entitled to fairness in the criminal justice system.
“You have some sort of resolution and believe that you have closure, and the case comes back up and it rips a whole new wound that you think has healed,” Mosby said. “I understand his frustration.”
In the appeals proceedings, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office sided mostly with the Lee family. In a filing, lawyers for the office wrote that there should be a new hearing about vacating the conviction, while noting that the family did not have the right “to present evidence, call witnesses, and challenge the state’s evidence and witnesses.”
David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who is not connected to the case, said that while he was sympathetic with the Lee family, he did not believe that a victim should be treated as a party in a hearing about whether a conviction should be upheld. He noted, too, that Phinn provided the family an opportunity to speak during the hearing on the motion to vacate.
“It seems to be clear that the victim’s role for this kind of hearing is particularly limited,” Jaros said. “I think the family is asking for a lot in this instance, but I’m not sure if they won’t be successful. ”
Since Syed’s release, he landed a full-time job with Georgetown as a program associate for the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.