Maryland’s second-highest court on Tuesday reinstated the convictions of Adnan Syed, sending the case back to a Baltimore courtroom and prolonging the legal saga made famous by the “Serial” podcast.
In a split decision, the Appellate Court of Maryland ruled the September hearing that wiped away Syed’s guilty finding in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee has to be redone because city prosecutors and the presiding judge failed to give Lee’s brother, Young Lee, adequate notice to be able to attend the proceeding in person.
Young Lee filed a notice of intent to appeal shortly after Syed walked free, but then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby utilized her broad prosecutorial authority to dismiss Syed’s charges.
Judges Gregory Wells and Kathryn G. Graeff, of the state’s intermediate appellate court, found that the circumstances of Lee’s appeal merited the rare step of reinstating Syed’s conviction and charges after prosecutors chose to drop them. The judges, however, stopped short of allowing Young Lee to present or challenge evidence at the hearing, as his attorneys requested in an appeal.
Nonetheless, David Sanford, one of Young Lee’s attorneys, said he was “delighted” the appellate court found his client’s rights as a crime victim representative were violated.
[ A timeline of Adnan Syed’s journey through Baltimore’s criminal justice system ]
“We are equally pleased that the Appellate Court is directing the lower court to conduct a transparent hearing where the evidence will be presented in open court and the court’s decision will be based on evidence for the world to see,” Sanford said.
Their decision means Syed, who got a job with Georgetown University following his release, abruptly goes from being an exoneree to convicted murderer — at least in the eyes of the law.
Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, said she planned to appeal the decision to the Maryland Supreme Court, and that she and her client remain optimistic that “justice will be done.”
“There is no basis for re-traumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon,” Suter said. “For the time being, Adnan remains a free man.”
Tuesday’s ruling does not mean Syed will return immediately to prison, with the court ordering a 60-day window before its ruling takes effect.
Syed always maintained that he was innocent in the killing of his high school ex-girlfriend. Lee, 18, was strangled to death and buried in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Investigators soon developed the theory that Syed, a popular honors student at Woodlawn High School, couldn’t handle it when Lee broke up with him.
He was 17 at the time of his arrest. A judge handed down a sentence of life plus 30 years in prison after he was convicted of murder in 2000. Syed was incarcerated approximately 23 years.
Appeal after appeal failed, but Syed’s break came when city prosecutors began reinvestigating his case alongside his defense attorney. 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.”
The Maryland Supreme Court is likely to hear Syed’s appeal because of the nature of the ruling and the dissent filed in the case, said Steve Klepper, a veteran appellate attorney at Kramon & Graham. The state Supreme Court also could block Syed from having to return to custody if the court agrees to hear his appeal.
Mosby said in a statement Tuesday that the court’s ruling “sets a dangerous precedent over a prosecutor’s ability to reverse an injustice.”
“We notified the victim’s family in line with Maryland law and best practices, and they attended virtually and spoke,” Mosby said. “To now send this case back to court prolongs the pain for the Lee family, and leaves a cloud hanging over a man who deserves to be free, Adnan Syed.”
David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the court’s ruling worried him.
“This is exactly the kind of case where it would make sense for the courts to not overturn and to put the onus on the legislature to clarify exactly the kind of rights they meant to bestow upon victims,” Jaros told The Baltimore Sun.
Appellate Judge Stuart R. Berger echoed Jaros’ sentiments in his dissenting opinion.
Imposing more specific requirements on victims’ rights is policy matter suited for the General Assembly or the state judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, not the appellate court, Berger wrote.
Berger’s argument that certain issues are best left up to lawmakers oftentimes wins out in the state Supreme Court, Klepper said.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General represented the state in Young Lee’s appeal. Though it represents local prosecutors in all criminal appellate cases, the attorney general’s office supported Lee.
“We are pleased that the Court in this case has recognized the victim’s right to be provided meaningful notice of a vacatur hearing and the right to attend that hearing in person,” said Aleithea Warmack, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
If Syed chooses not to appeal, or the state Supreme Court hears his case and rules against him, he likely would be back before Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn for a redo of the September 2022 hearing that initially set him free.
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At that hearing, Baltimore prosecutors told the court about the people they considered alternative suspects in Hae Min Lee’s murder.
Last October, Mosby appeared to have set Syed free for good when she dismissed his charges, citing the absence of his DNA on a pair of shoes found in Hae Min Lee’s car.
The appellate judges expressed skepticism about Mosby’s reasoning for certifying Syed’s innocence in a footnote to their opinion.
“Ms. Mosby did not explain why the absence of Mr. Syed’s DNA would exonerate him,” the judges wrote.
They cited a case that found, according to the judges, “where there was no evidence that the perpetrator came into contact with the tested items, the absence of a defendant’s DNA ‘would not tend to establish that he was not the perpetrator of th[e] crime.’”
If Syed’s case does return to a Baltimore courtroom, it will be handled by a new attorney — former prosecutor Becky Feldman has left the office — and under the administration of new State’s Attorney Ivan Bates. Bates took office in January but said while campaigning he believed Syed’s conviction was flawed and that Syed should be freed.
A spokesman for Bates said his office was reviewing the appellate court’s decision, but was “in a holding pattern” until the window for further appeal passes.