For the past two decades, Young Lee thought justice had been served when his sister’s killer was taken off the streets. He believed Baltimore prosecutors when they repeatedly expressed confidence in the case against Adnan Syed.
That changed last week when the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate Syed’s 2000 murder conviction in the death of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and high school classmate whose body was found buried in a makeshift grave in West Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Prosecutors said they reviewed the case in recent months and found alternative suspects and unreliable evidence used at trial.
A city judge agreed and Syed, 41, was released from prison Monday pending further investigation and DNA testing. Unshackled, he descended the courthouse steps after the hearing, surrounded by a crowd of cheering supporters — many of them devoted fans of the hit podcast “Serial” that brought international attention to the case — and went home to his parents after 23 years behind bars.
The Lee family is left questioning whether the case will ever truly be solved.
Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee and other relatives, said the family was treated as an afterthought during the recent proceedings, which showcased an unusual level of agreement between the defense and prosecution.
“The victim is the only party here that would be a check on this process,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Instead, everything was done in a rushed fashion. … The attitude was: How dare this victim try to screw this up.”
However, prosecutors said they contacted Young Lee before filing the motion to vacate and sent him an advance copy. They said they informed him of Monday’s hearing, which was scheduled three days earlier, and presented him with the option of participating virtually since he lives in California — and he agreed, but not until Sunday evening.
“I truly empathize with the family. I don’t want to be dismissive of their pain,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in an interview Wednesday. “But the idea that we left them out, or left them in the dark, is simply not the truth.”
Mosby said she’s trying to right a historic wrong, which occurred long before she took office or had any knowledge of the case. She said her staff were obligated to move quickly once they uncovered evidence that Syed received an unfair trial.
Kelly said crime victims typically place their trust in prosecutors, who often forge a close relationship with them and pledge to seek justice on their behalf. A vacated conviction turns that upside down.
The Maryland statute that allows requests for vacatur says a victim or their representative has the right to attend such hearings and must be notified beforehand.
At the beginning of Monday’s hearing, Kelly asked the judge to postpone it a week so the Lee family could travel to Baltimore from the West Coast. But Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn denied the request, saying Young Lee could participate via video conference. She also said the court would have waited to schedule the hearing if she had known Lee wanted to make travel plans. The Monday hearing was announced Friday.
Phinn called a 30-minute recess so Lee could leave work and join the hearing on Zoom.
At the start of his testimony, Lee said he would have preferred to address the court in person. Meanwhile, the Baltimore courtroom was filled with over 100 people hoping to witness Syed regain his freedom.
Lee said he felt blindsided by the prosecution’s recent decision to throw out the conviction — after 20-plus years of leading his family to believe they had achieved justice.
“I feel betrayed,” he said. “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life.”
Speaking through tears, Lee said he’s not opposed to further investigation of the case, but he asked the system to consider the toll on his family.
“I ask you to make the right decision,” he told Phinn, describing the difficulty of accepting that whoever killed his sister has been free this whole time.
When Lee was done speaking, Phinn told him she understood how difficult the day was for his family. She thanked him for testifying.
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Kelly — who has devoted much of his career to crime victim advocacy after experiencing the legal system through the lens of his sister’s murder in 1988 — said both prosecutors and the judge could have done more to include the Lee family and take their concerns seriously. He called the Zoom testimony a charade.
“The idea is this was a pre-ordained event,” he said, noting how Syed was publicly unshackled inside the courtroom, then immediately escorted through the front entrance, down the courthouse steps and into a waiting transport van — a clear deviation from the typical release process. Most often, when defendants are granted their freedom in court, they remain in custody while they’re transported back to prison for processing and then released.
Kelly and others have questioned how media and public attention are shaping the Syed case, which gained international recognition thanks to Serial. Other podcasts, books and documentaries went on to highlight the case.
Baltimore city prosecutors moved to vacate Syed’s conviction after an approximately yearlong investigation conducted with his attorney, Erica Suter, revealed two alternative suspects in the homicide, at least one of whom was not disclosed to the defense before trial, they wrote in court documents. They will now decide whether to try Syed again or seek charges against another suspect.
Kelly said Maryland law requires victims to be notified about such vacatur hearings within a “reasonable” amount of time.
“To suggest the State’s Attorney’s Office has provided adequate notice under these circumstances is outrageous,” he said during Monday’s hearing.
He said Wednesday that the family may file an appeal saying their rights were violated. In the meantime, he said, relatives asked for privacy while they process the recent news.