A Maryland Appellate Court panel on Tuesday reinstated the murder conviction of “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed, deciding a lower court had violated the right of the victim’s family to attend a critical hearing in the case in person.
In a statement, Erica Suter, an assistant public defender and Syed’s lawyer, said his legal team would seek review of the decision in the state’s highest court, the Maryland Supreme Court. She noted the Lee family’s appeal “was not about Adnan’s innocence but about notice and mootness.”
“There is no basis for re-traumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon. For the time being, Adnan remains a free man,” Suter said. “We remain optimistic that justice will be done.”
The ruling is the latest blow for Syed in a case that has wound a circuitous path through the criminal justice system.
Syed, then 17, was arrested in February 1999 for the killing of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old he had once dated. He 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, drawing national interest. At one point in recent years, a judge had granted him a new trial, but Maryland’s highest court ultimately reversed that decision, and in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing Syed’s case.
Then in September, 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. After 23 years, Syed was freed from prison.
What will happen next was not immediately clear. The Appellate Court panel said the “mandate” of its decision would be delayed for 60 days to allow the parties “time to assess how to proceed in response to this Court’s decision.” The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office under Marilyn Mosby had dropped the case entirely before the Appellate Court ruling. That office is now run by Ivan Bates.
James E. Bentley II, a spokesman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a statement Tuesday: “This office is currently conducting a review of the decision. We must allow the appeals process to play itself out, Mr. Syed and his legal team may file for an appeal to the Maryland Supreme Court, and we must respect their rights to do so until those rights are either heard or that request is denied; we are in a holding pattern. Any further comment would be premature at this time.”
Mosby said in a statement the decision “sets a dangerous precedent over a prosecutor’s ability to reverse an injustice,” and defended her handling of the case.
“We notified the victim’s family in line with Maryland law and best practices, and they attended virtually and spoke,” she said. “To now send this case back to court prolongs the pain for the Lee family, and leaves a cloud hanging over a man who deserves to be free, Adnan Syed.”
The Appellate Court panel ordered that the Circuit Court conduct “a new, legally compliant, transparent hearing” on prosecutors’ motion to vacate the case “where Mr. Lee is given notice of the hearing that is sufficient to allow him to attend in person, evidence supporting the motion to vacate is presented, and the court states its reasons in support of its decision.”
They declined, however, to appoint Young Lee or some other entity as a “limited-purpose party-in-interest” who could challenge prosecutors’ evidence. It is certainly possible that after a new hearing, the result could be the same, and Syed’s conviction would once again be overturned.
David Sanford, one of the Lee family attorneys, said in a statement he was “delighted” that the Appellate Court agreed his client had a right to be present at a hearing about vacating the conviction, and “equally pleased” that they ordered another such proceeding. He said in an interview that he was surprised by the swiftness of the Appellate Court’s decision, but was glad that the judges “got it right.”
“The nature of participation is important. What’s important is that you’re given notice and allowed to be a meaningful part of the process. That didn’t happen in the lower courts,” Sanford said, declining to address whether he thought Syed should again lose his freedom.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which had also argued Young Lee’s rights were violated, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the Court in this case has recognized the victim’s right to be provided meaningful notice of a vacatur hearing and the right to attend that hearing in person.”
Young Lee lives in California and was told on a Friday that the hearing about vacating Syed’s conviction would take place three days later, on a Monday. He was allowed to participate in the hearing over Zoom, but the Appellate Court panel said that wasn’t adequate.
Quoting Maryland statutes, the court wrote that crime victims or victim’s representatives “should be treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity” and that they “should be notified in advance of dates and times of trial court proceedings in the case and … of post-sentencing proceedings.”
The appeals panel’s decision was written by Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff and joined by Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells. It addressed the multiple steps in the post-conviction process: the decision by prosecutors to ask that Syed’s conviction be vacated, leaving him still charged in the case, and their subsequent decision to drop the charges altogether.
The Appellate Court questioned the timing of when prosecutors asked the Baltimore court to drop the charges, a process known as nolle prosequi, or nol pros for short. The court noted that prosecutors filed their nol pros two days before they were due to respond to a motion by Young Lee related to the vacating of the conviction.
“We conclude that the nol pros was entered with the purpose or ‘necessary effect’ of preventing Mr. Lee from obtaining a ruling on appeal regarding whether his rights as a victim’s representative were violated,” the Appellate Court panel wrote.
The move “violated the requirement that the entry of a nol pros conform to ‘the rudimentary demands of fair procedure,’” the panel wrote, adding: “We conclude that exceptional circumstances exist to temper the authority of the State to enter a nol pros. Accordingly, we hold that the nol pros was void, and the circuit court erred in accepting the nol pros at the court proceeding on October 11, 2022.”
Judge Stuart R. Berger, who vigorously questioned the lawyers for both Lee and Syed during an appeals court hearing in February, dissented, noting that Young Lee was able to attend the hearing at which Syed’s conviction was vacated “via electronic means.”
“Ultimately, the court provided Mr. Lee with both the attendance he was entitled to, and the judge exercised her discretion in affording him the opportunity to participate,” Berger wrote.
After Syed’s release, he was hired by Georgetown University as a program associate for the school’s Prisons and Justice Initiative. His role there is to provide research for an undergraduate class called “Making an Exoneree,” in which students seek to help free innocent people from prison by examining old convictions and making short documentaries about the cases.
Marc Howard, the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, said in a statement: “I reaffirm my unwavering support for my colleague and friend Adnan Syed. Today’s ruling does not change the facts in Adnan’s case or erase the injustices that led to his wrongful conviction. Since Adnan joined the Prisons and Justice Initiative in December 2022, he has become an invaluable part of our team. The positive impact of his insight, hard work, thoughtfulness, and integrity has been felt by his colleagues and the students we serve.”
Prosecutors have said their examination of Hae Min Lee’s death is ongoing, and they wrote in previous court filings of two possible alternate suspects. Those people, though, were known to investigators previously, prosecutors have said, and they have not been charged in the case.