In back-to-back filings Monday night, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and a lawyer for Adnan Syed took opposing stances on the appeal of Hae Min Lee’s brother in the case made famous by the “Serial” podcast.
The attorney general’s office said Young Lee’s appeal should continue, agreeing with his position that the September hearing at which Syed’s conviction was overturned was legally deficient and should be redone — the first legal argument filed in the high-profile case under recently sworn-in Attorney General Anthony Brown, who has declined to publicly take a position on the case.
Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, said Lee’s appeal was made moot the moment the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office dropped his charges in October. Because there is no longer a criminal case against Syed, there is nothing for Lee to appeal, Suter argued.
The filings Monday respond to questions raised by the Appellate Court of Maryland, the state’s second-highest court: Was Lee’s appeal effectively voided when Syed’s charges were dismissed? If so, should the court render an opinion to clarify what should happen if a similar situation arises again? Did Baltimore prosecutors comply with state law on notifying crime victims?
In December, attorneys for Lee, writing in response to the court’s questions, argued that the appeals court should order a new hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court to reconsider whether his conviction should be vacated because prosecutors didn’t give ample notice. Lee should be allowed to present evidence, call witnesses and rebut evidence presented by prosecutors, his attorney, Steve Kelly, argued.
Kelly also said he urged the court to take up the question of crime victim rights at vacatur hearings regardless of whether the judges found the appeal moot. He said disputes over victims’ rights at such proceedings were likely to arise again if the court didn’t weigh in.
A three-judge panel is slated to hear oral arguments in the case Feb. 2.
Despite disagreeing as to whether the appeal should go forward and, if so, whether the appeals court should rule on the matter anyway, Suter and Assistant Attorney General Daniel Jawor agreed that Lee does not have the right to participate in a hearing over whether to overturn a conviction.
While Maryland law provides that crime victims should be treated with “dignity, respect and sensitivity during all phases of the criminal justice process,” what Lee requested goes far beyond the scope of crime victims’ rights, Suter said in her filing, and would effectively usurp prosecutors’ discretion — a pillar of the criminal legal system.
“Victims do not prosecute charges, they do not decide which witnesses to call, and they do not cross-examine those witnesses,” Suter wrote. “Giving Appellant what he wants will not just result in the re-imprisonment of Mr. Syed for a crime he did not commit, it will wreak havoc on our criminal justice system.”
Her position has the support of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which filed a brief Monday arguing that crime victims, or their representatives, have the right only to appear at hearings to determine whether to vacate convictions, not to participate — or to present evidence.
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“Vacatur is a limited proceeding where a victim’s allocution has no bearing on the key issue of whether newly discovered evidence calls into question the integrity of the conviction. By contrast, sentencing is a holistic inquiry, and the victim’s right to be heard has long been recognized as an important part of that inquiry,” the attorneys’ brief reads.
The latest twist in the legal saga that rocketed to international renown stems from Suter’s approaching the city State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit in 2021, with hopes of having Syed’s punishment modified.
What began as a review of the case turned into a full reinvestigation conducted alongside Suter. The probe culminated with Baltimore prosecutors moving to vacate Syed’s conviction in September, citing the revelation of alternative suspects in the homicide and what they described as discredited trial testimony.
Police arrested Syed, then 17, in 1999 and charged him with murder in Lee’s death, presenting the theory that he strangled her because he was upset over their breakup. A jury found him guilty in 2000, and a judge sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison.
A Baltimore judge ordered Syed unshackled and released from custody Sept. 20, freeing him from custody after 23 years. He has since found a job with a prison reform program run out of Georgetown University.
Suter said in a statement released by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender that they looked forward to arguing the case in court.
“Adnan Syed’s innocence is not before the Appellate Court of Maryland,” Suter said. “The only issues before the Appellate Court are whether the appeal is moot because Adnan no longer stands charged with any crimes.”