A Maryland appellate court sent shock waves around the globe this week when it ordered a redo of the legal hearing that set Adnan Syed, subject of the hit podcast “Serial,” free.
The state’s second-highest court on Tuesday reinstated Syed’s convictions in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee.
In a split opinion, the Appellate Court of Maryland said a judge in Baltimore violated the right of Lee’s brother to attend in person the September hearing that wiped away Syed’s guilty finding and that city prosecutors neglected to give Young Lee ample notice of that consequential court proceeding.
Decades of legal drama built up to this moment where, once again, Syed’s freedom weighs in the balance.
Here’s what you need to know:
How did we get here?
The body of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee was discovered in Leakin Park on Feb. 9, 1999, weeks after she went missing from Woodlawn High School. Authorities said she was strangled to death in a struggle. They homed in on her ex-boyfriend, Syed, developing the theory that the popular honors student couldn’t handle it when Lee ended their relationship.
Arrested and jailed at 17, Syed was convicted of murder in 2000. A judge later sentenced him to life in prison.
Appellate courts rejected appeal after appeal from Syed, but he seemed to catch a break in 2021 when his attorney asked the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office to consider changing Syed’s punishment in light of a new state law allowing sentence modifications for people convicted of crimes as juveniles.
That request spawned a reinvestigation, and last fall city prosecutors moved to throw out his convictions, citing two people they now considered suspects in Lee’s killing and who they said Syed’s defense lawyers should’ve been told about decades ago. Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn vacated his conviction Sept. 19 and Syed walked free after 23 years behind bars.
[ A timeline of Adnan Syed’s journey through Baltimore’s criminal justice system ]
But Young Lee, who lives in California, had said he wanted to attend the Sept. 19 hearing in person and asked for a weeklong postponement to allow him to travel. Phinn denied the postponement, but allowed Young Lee to express his displeasure with the development via video call.
A lawyer for Young Lee soon noted his intent to appeal, alleging violations to his rights as a crime victim representative. Before they could file an appeal, then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby quietly dismissed Syed’s charges.
Why did Lee’s brother appeal?
According to his lawyers, Young Lee wanted to be there in the Baltimore courtroom for the hearing that freed Syed — the man prosecutors told Lee’s family for more than 20 years was responsible for her killing.
His attorneys said prosecutors failed to provide him ample notice of the hearing, and that appearing by video did not satisfy his right as a crime victim representative to attend the proceeding. A Los Angeles resident, Lee was given less than one full business day’s notice about the hearing. Lee’s attorney asked the court to delay the hearing for seven days so he could fly out and attend in person, but Phinn said no.
Those shortcomings, the lawyers argued, went against state law mandating victims and victim representatives “should be treated with dignity, respect, courtesy, and sensitivity.”
“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” Lee said via Zoom at the September hearing.
His attorneys didn’t stop there, arguing Lee should be allowed to speak at the hearing in person and, through his legal representation, present and challenge evidence and call witnesses.
In appellate briefs, Lee’s lawyers also raised doubts about the grounds cited to throw out Syed’s conviction — exculpatory evidence not disclosed to Syed, inconsistent testimony at his trials, disproved expert analysis used against him — but they didn’t have legal grounds to challenge the merits of the vacatur.
What does the ruling say?
The appellate opinion authored by Judge Kathryn G. Graeff says the move by Baltimore prosecutors to dismiss Syed’s charges, which happened three days after Young Lee appealed, was legally void.
Graeff and E. Gregory Wells, chief judge of the Appellate Court of Maryland, said dropping Syed’s charges failed “rudimentary demands of fair procedure” because it effectively prevented Lee from finding out whether his rights as a crime victim representative were violated.
Becky Feldman, the prosecutor on the case, who left the state’s attorney’s office late last year, emailed Young Lee around 2 p.m. Sept. 16, a Friday, notifying him about the vacatur hearing around 2 p.m. Sept. 19, the following Monday. She provided Lee a Zoom link to watch the hearing.
The appellate judges found Phinn was wrong to rule Feldman provided adequate notice, and that allowing Lee to watch the hearing on Zoom did not satisfy his right to attend.
Graeff and Wells ordered Syed’s convictions reinstated in order for there to be a redo of the hearing to vacate his convictions in city circuit court. The third member of the appellate court panel, Judge Stuart R. Berger, disagreed and wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the legislature — not the appellate court — ought to more clearly specify victims’ rights.
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If the case actually returns to a Baltimore courtroom, all three appellate judges agree, Young Lee does not have a right to speak at the hearing — the presiding judge could allow it, as Phinn did, but it’s not required by law — or to present or contest evidence, as Lee’s lawyers requested in the appeal.
Will Adnan Syed go back to prison?
Because the appeals court ordered a 60-day stay on its mandate reinstating Syed’s 1999 murder conviction, he will not have to go back to prison. At least not right away.
Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney, said she would appeal the decision to the Maryland Supreme Court, and court observers believe it is likely the state’s highest court would hear the case.
Should it agree to hear Syed’s case, the state Supreme Court can order a continuation of the lower court’s stay until the justices issue a ruling, meaning Syed would not have to return to prison in the interim.
Returning Syed to prison while his freedom remains in the hands of the state’s most powerful justices would wrongly and further traumatize him, Suter said.
Should the Supreme Court overturn the appellate court’s ruling, Syed would go back to being declared free and innocent. If they agree with the appellate court’s finding, Syed would likely be reincarcerated pending a redo of the hearing to overturn his conviction, legal experts said.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates’ office has not said either way whether Bates would support the original motion and evidence that led to Syed being freed. On the campaign trail, however, Bates repeatedly highlighted flaws in Syed’s prosecution and said he ought to be free.