Baltimore prosecutors and a city judge collaborated behind closed doors to “choreograph” the hearing where Adnan Syed’s conviction stemming from the killing of Hae Min Lee was overturned, attorneys representing her brother alleged in an appeal seeking to restore his conviction.
In a filing Monday evening — the last before oral arguments Feb. 2 for the case in the Appellate Court of Maryland — Young Lee’s lawyers ramped up claims of impropriety in the proceedings that freed Syed, while doubling down on previous legal arguments and distinguishing their client’s position from that of the Maryland’s attorney general’s office.
Attorneys for Lee are asking the appeals court to reinstate Syed’s murder charges from the 1999 killing and to order a do-over of the Sept. 19 hearing where Syed’s conviction was vacated. They say city prosecutors, under then-State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, didn’t give Lee adequate notice of the hearing and that Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn didn’t give Lee a meaningful opportunity to participate.
Before she held a public hearing vacating Syed’s conviction, Phinn met with a prosecutor and Syed’s defense attorney in her chambers to review evidence supporting the prosecutors’ motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.
In a new argument, Lee’s attorneys say that meeting violated the legal principle of open court proceedings, citing court opinions in cases of news organizations suing governments and courts.
“The only time that the circuit court reviewed evidence was in a secret closed-chambers proceeding,” wrote attorneys David Sanford, Steve Kelly and Ari Ruben. “It was then that the court determined how to resolve the State’s vacatur motion, making the subsequent public vacatur ‘hearing’ an empty ritual. Without an open review of the evidence, everything in the State’s motion amounted to unsubstantiated speculation and Mr. Lee’s right to meaningfully participate disappeared.”
In their motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, city prosecutors said their predecessors had withheld evidence of alternative suspects in Lee’s killing from Syed’s defense and that he didn’t get a fair trial because of it. Prosecutors also highlighted what they described as problems with Syed’s trials that led to improper convictions, including inconsistent testimony and since-discredited cellphone location evidence.
Sanford further questioned the meeting in Phinn’s chambers in a statement released Tuesday.
“There is no record of what was said and no record of what evidence, if any, the court reviewed. Hae Min Lee’s family and the public deserve more, and that is what the law requires,” Sanford said. “At this point, the integrity of our judicial system and respect for the rule of law are at stake.”
Rules for judges in Maryland bar them from commenting on pending legal matters.
In a statement released by the public defender’s office, Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, defended the integrity of the proceedings and Phinn’s decision to throw out her client’s conviction.
She said the judge overturned his conviction because it was “marred by prosecutorial misconduct and infirm evidence,” and noted that prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in October because recent DNA analysis conducted on certain previously untested pieces of evidence in Lee’s killing excluded Syed.
“The Lee family’s pain, as they grapple with this outcome, is entirely understandable and deserving of our compassion. Adnan was not the only one victimized by the prosecutor’s misconduct,” Suter said. “Our system is wrong to pit an innocent man against the pain of the victim’s family. However, that impossible choice is not before the Appellate Court.”
The lawyers for Lee, who lives in California, are asking not only for the do-over so that he can attend in person and be prepared to speak — rather than appearing in court via Zoom, as he did in September — but also for him to be allowed to present evidence.
Both the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, which generally supports Lee’s appeal, and Suter, who is fighting against the appeal, said in filings last week that state law does not provide crime victims with the right to participate in a case by presenting evidence or arguing the law.
In legal briefs supporting Syed’s stance, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said Maryland law neither provides victims the right to speak at vacatur hearings nor to refute evidence.
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“Giving victims the right to challenge evidence or dispute substantive rulings would effectively allow them to usurp the role of prosecutors,” attorneys for the criminal defense organization wrote. “Not only is such a broad expansion of victims’ rights unprecedented, it would violate due process by permitting victims, who have a personal stake in the outcome, to become parties to the prosecution.”
The latest rounds of legal arguments filed in the case come after Maryland’s second-highest court in November allowed Lee’s appeal to go forward. A three-judge panel ordered Lee, Syed and the attorney general to explain their positions on whether the appeal was voided by the prosecutors’ decision to dismiss the charges.
The appeals court also left open the possibility of issuing an opinion on a moot appeal to clarify crime victim rights laws.
Lee’s lawyers and the attorney general’s office say the appeal is still ripe, arguing that Lee wasn’t given enough notice of the hearing to vacate Syed’s conviction. Even if the court finds the issue moot, they say, it should clarify what role victims or victims’ representatives have in future vacatur hearings.
Suter contends, however, that the appeal no longer has any merit and that the appeals court should let the legislature make changes to crime victim rights law.
“We look forward to arguing these issues in the Court next week,” Suter said in the statement.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.