To even the closest followers of Adnan Syed’s case — one chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial” — a decision this week by the Maryland Appellate Court to reinstate his conviction raised a lot of questions. Here they are, with answers.
What are the basics of the case again?
In 1999, the body of Hae Min Lee, 18, was found in a Baltimore park. She’d been strangled. Police charged Syed, who was convicted in 2000 of murder and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. He and his attorneys waged a long but unsuccessful battle in appellate courts to have his conviction overturned. In 2021, prosecutors at the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office began their own review of the case. A year later, they asked a local judge to vacate Syed’s conviction and sentence, saying they’d “lost confidence in the integrity of his convictions.” A judge granted the request, and Syed was set free.
So what exactly did the Appellate Court of Maryland declare this week?
Here’s the ruling, all 68 pages (not including the dissent), which took aim at the way prosecutors in Baltimore sought to have Syed’s murder conviction and sentence vacated last year. Specifically, the Appellate Court concluded that prosecutors didn’t give Lee’s family proper notification of its intention to ask a judge to vacate Syed’s conviction and sentence — a deficiency the appeals court said ran counter to Maryland’s aim to treat victims and their families with “dignity, respect, and sensitivity” in such matters.
Did the Appellate Court propose a remedy?
Yes, it ordered Baltimore prosecutors to redo their request to a Baltimore judge to have Syed’s conviction and sentence vacated — but this time give the victim’s family enough to time to be present at a court hearing on the matter, even if that involves coming from California. The Appellate Court also wants a more “transparent” hearing, suggesting to prosecutors that they lay out, in more detail, the evidence and reasoning for undoing the conviction.
What ultimately is going to happen?
“My sense is that the decision will make no difference in the long run …”
So says William Brennan, a longtime Maryland defense attorney who would know about such matters. Many others agree. The thinking: If the Baltimore prosecutors simply do their request correctly this time, with plenty of notice to the victim’s family, the judge will honor their request — and the conviction and sentencing will again be vacated. Then prosecutors will move to drop the charges altogether. And things will be right back where they were before this week’s ruling.
What does Brennan mean by ‘my sense’? Why the hedging?
Here is the rest of his quote: “ — unless the new state’s attorney in Baltimore City (Ivan Bates) changes the position of the state’s attorneys office.” That’s kind of the wild card here, because the Baltimore prosecutor who decided to drop the case — Marilyn Mosby — left office this year. Bates could look over his office’s records and decide that the case has merit and the conviction should stand, or that Syed should at least remain charged and be retried, Brennan and others say.
What should be made of the Appellate Court saying that prosecutors should be more ‘transparent’ about their request to vacate the conviction?
A lot, say attorneys for Young Lee, the brother of the murder victim, who challenged the process. They say that prosecutors never adequately showed last year why the case against Syed was so flawed. “If you’re going to ask to overturn a conviction out of the blue, you better have evidence, and you better have compelling evidence, and it should be placed on the record,” David Sanford, an attorney for Lee, said in an interview. “They don’t have pardon power as prosecutors.”
To that end, Sanford said he will appeal the part of the Appellate Court’s opinion that didn’t go the family’s way — the part where they asked to be able to actively challenge in court the prosecutors’ evidence that the case should be dumped — even if that takes days to do. “We want and deserve a legally compliant hearing with two sides presenting,” Sanford said.
An appeal of an appeal? I thought this was going to simplify things for me.
Maybe not. While the Appellate Court called for “the reinstatement of the original convictions and sentence,” it also issued that 60-day delay. “That gives the parties time to assess how to proceed in response to this court’s decision,” the panel wrote.
“We are in a holding pattern,” Bates’s spokesman said Tuesday, noting that Syed’s attorneys might appeal the decision to the Maryland Supreme Court. “Any further comment would be premature at this time.”
Indeed, Syed’s attorneys have said they will ask Maryland highest court to review the ruling.
“There are a lot of procedural twists that occurred in this case that still need to be worked out,” added Megan Coleman, a defense attorney not involved in the case.
If and when prosecutors have to redo their request to vacate the conviction, will it become a wide-open look at the case as Lee’s family wants?
Not necessarily. Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, said in a statement that the original request prosecutors made wasn’t erroneous. Much of the request was based, according to the Appellate Court opinion, on an affidavit submitted by the director of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s sentencing review unit.
“The State has lost confidence in the integrity of his convictions,” that director at the time, Becky Feldman, stated then, “and believes that it is in the interest of justice and fairness that his convictions be vacated.”
Such statements by prosecutors have tended to carry the day when they ask a judge to vacate a conviction, attorneys say, especially when defense attorneys agree with the request.