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Maryland Supreme Court halts Adnan Syed’s murder conviction reinstatement

The justices prevented an appellate court decision reinstating the conviction from taking effect at least temporarily, while they mull whether to take up the case

Adnan Syed, center, leaves the courthouse in Baltimore. (Brian Witte/AP)
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An earlier version of this article reported that the Maryland Appellate Court had vacated Adnan Syed's conviction. A circuit court judge vacated the conviction; the appellate court reinstated it. This version has been corrected.

Maryland’s highest court on Thursday temporarily halted Adnan Syed’s murder conviction from being reinstated as it weighs whether to take up the “Serial” podcast subject’s case.

In a one-page order, the Maryland Supreme Court said it would prevent the Maryland Appellate Court’s 2-1 decision to reinstate Syed’s conviction from taking effect while the justices consider whether they will hear the matter themselves.

The decision — while expected, because no one involved in the litigation opposed the move — means that Syed will remain free as the legal wrangling continues.

Syed, at age 17, was arrested in the killing of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old he once dated. He was convicted of murder in 2000 and sentenced to life behind bars. The case drew widespread attention when the podcast “Serial” investigated it.

Syed waged a long and — until recently — unsuccessful effort to have his conviction tossed. Then in September, at the request of then-Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn vacated his conviction after deciding that there were problems with how prosecutors had turned over evidence to defense attorneys. Mosby’s office soon moved to drop the charges.

But Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, appealed the matter, arguing that he was not given adequate time to participate in the hearing where Syed’s conviction was vacated. The Maryland Appellate Court sided with him, reinstating Syed’s conviction and ordering a new hearing — though it delayed its ruling from taking effect for 60 days. It will now be delayed even longer.

While a new hearing might produce the same result, Mosby is no longer the state’s attorney in Baltimore, and her successor, Ivan Bates, has not made his position on the case clear. James E. Bentley II, a spokesman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a statement that the office would “refrain from commenting on the Adnan Syed case until the appellate process runs its course. Jurisdiction is currently with the appellate courts of Maryland, and the Office of the Attorney General is handling the case.”

Md. Supreme Court asked to consider wiping away Adnan Syed conviction

Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, said previously that reincarcerating her client would be “devastating for him and his family and would be an affront to justice.”

Young Lee, who lives in California, was told on a Friday that the hearing on vacating Syed’s conviction would take place three days later, on a Monday. He spoke at the hearing via Zoom, though the appellate court determined that was not enough to satisfy his rights as a victim’s family member.

Syed’s attorneys asked the Maryland Supreme Court to take up the case and review several legal issues, including whether the Zoom appearance was sufficient and whether the decision by Mosby’s office to dismiss the charges against Syed made the case moot.

David Sanford, one of the Lee family attorneys, said in a recent interview that he, too, planned to challenge part of the appellate panel’s opinion, which limited Lee’s ability to actively challenge in court evidence presented by prosecutors to have the case against Syed thrown out. Sanford said his office was “not on a campaign to have Adnan Syed reincarcerated.”