The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Appeals court hears arguments on whether to reinstate Adnan Syed conviction

The three-judge panel asked skeptical questions of both sides, including whether prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges rendered the matter moot

Adnan Syed leaves the Baltimore courthouse in September after a judge ordered his release. (Brian Witte/AP)
5 min

An appeals court panel asked critical questions of both sides as it heard 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 hearing before a three-judge Maryland Court of Appeals panel focused on a challenge brought by the brother of the teenager that Syed had previously been convicted of killing.

Lawyers for Young Lee, the brother of Hae Min Lee, argued that the Baltimore city state’s attorney gave him less than one business day’s notice of the hearing at which Syed’s conviction was vacated, and that prosecutors did not provide enough detail for him to understand why that was happening. They asked the court to order a redo of the hearing.

Adnan Syed is a free man, eyeing exoneration. Here’s what we know.

“Both the circuit court and state’s attorney for Baltimore failed repeatedly to provide appellant Young Lee that dignity, respect, and sensitivity he is entitled to receive in this state,” lawyer David Sanford argued in court.

Some on the panel appeared skeptical, questioning whether the law explicitly gave victims’ family members a right to speak at proceedings to vacate convictions, let alone to play a more active role.

“You argue that the victim’s representative should have a right to present evidence and challenge. Under what authority do you allege you have that right?” Judge Stuart R. Berger asked.

The Maryland appeals court panel hearing — before Berger and Judges E. Gregory Wells and Kathryn Grill Graeff — 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, whom 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 representatives 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 the conviction, deciding that there were problems in how prosecutors had turned over evidence to defense attorneys decades ago. Then-Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby soon moved to drop the case.

Graeff and Berger questioned Young Lee’s attorneys particularly aggressively on whether Mosby’s move to drop the case made the appeal moot.

“Why isn’t the case moot because there’s no underlying case left in light of the nolle pros?” Berger asked. “There is no case.”

Lawyer Steven Kelly argued that because the hearing at which Syed’s conviction was vacated was defective, so, too, was the move to drop the case. In an unusual twist, their bid for a new hearing was supported by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office — even though the Baltimore city state’s attorney’s office had dropped the case.

The judge pressed Young Lee’s attorneys: “What would happen to Mr. Syed, in your scenario? … You’re asking us to reinstate the conviction?”

“Pending the hearing of the outcome, yes, the case would have to be reinstated,” Kelly responded.

Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, urged the judges to consider the case moot — but noted that even if they didn’t, the appeal should fail. Though the law did not guarantee Young Lee a right to speak at the hearing in which Syed’s conviction was vacated, she argued, he did so — albeit via Zoom.

“That’s really tough for me to swallow, and especially for my mom,” Young Lee said at the hearing.

Suter said: “Even if this court were to find that the matter is not moot and proceeded to the merits, Mr. Lee was notified, did attend, and did participate, although he actually doesn’t have a right to participate.”

The judges challenged Suter on whether it was reasonable to notify Lee, who lives in California, of the hearing only one business day ahead of time.

“Is it your position that notice a minute before is sufficient, or do you agree that it has to be reasonable?” Graeff asked.

Suter argued that the state took steps to facilitate Young Lee participating — including by providing him with a Zoom option and notifying him of the hearing in email and text.

Prosecutors have said the investigation into Hae Min Lee’s death is ongoing, and they 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.

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.

Since Syed’s release, he landed a full-time job with Georgetown University as a program associate for the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.