Adnan Syed is asking the Supreme Court of Maryland to overrule a lower court’s decision to bring back his convictions in the 1999 murder case examined in the hit podcast “Serial.”
Filed Wednesday, the brief from Syed’s lawyers comes three weeks after the Appellate Court of Maryland rejected his request to reconsider its March 28 opinion to reinstate his convictions and life sentence in the killing of his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
In that ruling, the intermediate appeals court found that Baltimore prosecutors and a city Circuit Court judge violated the rights of Lee’s brother, Young Lee, by neglecting to give him enough notice to be able to attend the Sept. 19 hearing that set Syed free. Young Lee, who lived in California, spoke at the hearing by video call, but argued he wanted to be there in-person.
[ A timeline of Adnan Syed’s journey through Baltimore’s criminal justice system ]
With two of three judges on the panel presiding over the appeal in agreement, the court ordered a do-over of the hearing to vacate Syed’s convictions. Because then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby decided to drop Syed’s charges in October, with Lee’s notice of appeal pending, the appellate court’s decision meant Syed could go from exonerated to convicted and facing life in prison.
In their brief, Syed’s lawyers doubled down on arguments they raised in April, and previously in response to Young Lee’s appeal. They said the appellate court was mistaken, posing four questions for the high court’s consideration and describing several of them as unprecedented legal issues:
- Should Mosby dropping Syed’s charges last October have nullified Young Lee’s appeal?
- Do victims or victims’ representatives have a right to attend a hearing to vacate a conviction, even if they don’t have a right to speak at it?
- Was less than one business day enough notice of the September hearing for Young Lee, considering the law doesn’t spell out what a “reasonable” time frame is?
- If they appeal, should victims or their representatives be required to show that the error they allege happened would have changed the outcome of the legal proceeding?
The last question mirrors Syed’s argument in April. In that motion, his lawyers said Young Lee’s attendance in-person at the hearing that vacated Syed’s conviction, rather than by video call, wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the legal determination that led to Syed’s release.
In a one-sentence order signed by Judge E. Gregory Wells, chief judge of the appellate court, the panel said it wouldn’t reconsider.
The state Supreme Court doesn’t have to take up Syed’s appeal, but scholars interviewed by The Baltimore Sun during the latest stages of the decades-long legal saga expect the high court to accept the opportunity to address the high-profile case, particularly given the opportunity to set a precedent on victims’ rights in criminal cases.
Syed’s lawyers also asked the high court to hold off on reinstating Syed’s conviction while his appeal advances. According to their filing, Young Lee’s lawyers and the office of Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown, which represents prosecutors across the state in all appeals, consented to that request.
The appellate court’s March 28 ruling provided 60 days before it takes effect.
“Adnan’s innocence is not at issue, but his rights as a defendant and freedom as an exoneree are directly impacted by the Appellate Court of Maryland’s decision,” said Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, in a statement through the Office of the Public Defender. “Beyond the import of these proceedings to Adnan and his family, the issues raised have broader implications for our entire legal system.”
Suter, an assistant public defender and director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, went on to say that the appellate court’s ruling jeopardizes prosecutors’ discretion to dismiss cases, calls into question the role of victims in legal determinations, like vacating convictions, and potentially hinders a judge’s ability to opt for video hearings.
In its ruling, the appellate court found that Mosby dropping Syed’s charges effectively usurped Young Lee’s right to appeal.
If the appellate court’s ruling holds, Syed’s lawyers wrote in the brief, it would “eliminate the State’s authority to dismiss charges” after a conviction is vacated “to correct an injustice.”
Even though the appellate court found that state law doesn’t allow a victim’s representative the right to speak or present evidence at a hearing to vacate a conviction, it ruled Young Lee attending the hearing by video didn’t satisfy his right to attend.
In a statement after Syed’s latest appeal, Young Lee’s attorney, David Sanford, touted the the appellate court’s decision as a recognition “that victims in the state of Maryland have rights.”
Sanford said he was “confident” the state Supreme Court would go further than the appellate court’s decision by allowing victims to “meaningfully participate in that hearing.” The appellate court rejected Young Lee’s request to be able to call witnesses and put on evidence at such a hearing.
Recognizing that Maryland courts regularly held proceedings by video during the coronavirus pandemic and still do, the state Supreme Court recently enacted a rule allowing judges to require remote participation in certain proceedings.
Syed’s lawyers say the appellate court’s ruling in his case means any hearing conducted by video could be appealed and overturned, causing “disastrous consequences for the orderly administration of justice in Maryland’s courts.”
They also said the appellate court failed to consider Syed’s rights, and the posture of his case: The defense, prosecution and Circuit Court judge all agreed that his conviction was legally flawed and, as a result, that he’d spent about 23 years wrongfully incarcerated.
A maintenance worker found Hae Min Lee’s body in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in 1999. Police homed in on the 18-year-old’s ex-boyfriend, Syed. At trial, prosecutors postulated that Syed, a popular honors student at Woodlawn High School, couldn’t take it when Lee broke up with him. They believed he strangled her during a struggle in her car.
A jury in 2000 found Syed guilty of murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. A judge gave him life plus 30 years in prison.
Repeated appeals by Syed failed, until he got a break in 2021. Around then, city prosecutors began reinvestigating his case after Suter approached the state’s attorney’s office about reconsidering his punishment in light of a new law about people sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as teens.
The Morning Sun
Prosecutors said the joint probe revealed alternative suspects who should have been disclosed to Syed’s defense attorney decades earlier, meaning he didn’t get a fair trial and his convictions should be discarded “in the interests of justice.” He walked free in front of a crowd of supporters and gaggle of TV cameras on Sept. 19.
But Young Lee said in his appeal that the state’s attorney’s office didn’t give him enough notice of that hearing.
Prosecutors have said they gave him a heads up before they moved to throw out Syed’s conviction, and reached out to him as soon as the hearing was set. There was a scheduling conference in the afternoon of Sept. 16, a Friday, in Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn’s chambers setting the hearing for the following Monday.
Young Lee’s attorneys argued that less than one business day’s notice wasn’t “reasonable,” as the law required. But Syed’s lawyers say prosecutors abided by the requirements of the law, so it shouldn’t be held against Syed.
In the latest brief, Syed argued the appellate court failed to apply a legal principle known as the “harmless error doctrine” to its analysis of Young Lee’s appeal.
Experts say the doctrine allows modern courts to function because it allows for legal and procedural mistakes, so long as the mistakes wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the case.
Syed’s lawyers argued the appellate court’s ruling opens the door for victims’ representatives to appeal rulings and argue the legal principle doesn’t apply to them.