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Appeal of order vacating Adnan Syed conviction can continue, court rules

Hae Min Lee’s brother has argued he was not allowed to “meaningfully” participate in the hearing at which the conviction was tossed

Adnan Syed, center right, leaves the courthouse after a hearing on Sept. 19 in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/AP)

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Friday that the family of a murder victim whose case was featured on the popular podcast “Serial” can continue appealing a judge’s decision to vacate the conviction of the man previously charged in the case.

The ruling will bring more scrutiny to a Circuit Court judge’s decision to overturn the conviction of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty in 2000 of murdering 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, though it is unclear to what end.

Prosecutors later dropped the criminal case against Syed, asserting that he was “wrongly convicted” and should not have spent more than two decades in prison. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has said that should have rendered the appeal moot.

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Lee’s family — led by her brother, Young Leeappealed Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn’s decision to vacate, with their attorney arguing that they were not given the opportunity to “meaningfully” participate in the court hearing that at which Syed’s conviction was thrown out. The court had previously asked the family to explain why their appeal should continue after prosecutors dropped the case against Syed all together.

The Lee family filed papers on Wednesday asking the appellate court for a new, public, evidentiary hearing in which all the evidence supporting the decision to vacate was presented. They argued that prosecutors’ claims about why the case should be dismissed — including that evidence wasn’t turned over to defense attorneys as it should have been — were disputed, and should be scrutinized in court.

“Hae Min Lee’s family is thrilled with today’s ruling,” said Steve Kelly, the Lee family attorney, in a statement Friday afternoon. “All they are seeking is what the law requires — a full evidentiary hearing in which they can meaningfully participate and one that makes public the relevant evidence.”

Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, said in a statement: “The appeal is not about Adnan’s innocence. As the court’s order makes clear, it is simply about whether the victim received proper notice of the vacatur hearing and whether the dismissal of all charges prevents the appeal from going forward. We look forward to briefing these issues before the court and remain confident in the outcome.”

The two-page special appeals court ruling did not detail the judges’ reasoning in allowing the matter to proceed.

Writing for a panel, Judge Anne Albright set a schedule that would have the court consider the matter in its February 2023 session.

She asked the parties to weigh in on whether the notice to Lee’s family before the hearing on vacating the conviction “complied with the applicable constitutional provisions, statutes, and rules,” whether the appeal was moot, and — even if it was — whether the court could still give an opinion.