The Adnan Syed case has delivered us to a strange place: A chief prosecutor, who happens to be under federal indictment for perjury, suddenly asks a judge to overturn the conviction of a man in a high-profile murder case from 23 years ago. Defending her decision, the prosecutor accuses a respected state attorney general of intentionally covering up evidence of the convicted man’s possible innocence. Taken aback, the AG questions the prosecutor’s decision to move ahead and drop the murder charge, setting the man free. The original prosecutor also raises a serious question about the decision to throw out the conviction. Then the judge who presided at the trial says the guilty verdict was solid.
All this in public — at news conferences, in court filings — while the rest of us watch and scratch our heads, wondering, yet again, what the truth is about Hae Min Lee’s murder.
What a confusing spectacle.
The Syed case has received so much attention, ever since the “Serial” podcast raised questions about his conviction for the murder of his former high school girlfriend, that none but troglodytes should have missed it.
We know the players:
Marilyn Mosby is the outgoing Baltimore state’s attorney who, as a self-styled progressive prosecutor, came recently to believe that Syed was deprived of a fair trial in 1999 because his defense was never made aware of other suspects in the case. That assertion got a judge to vacate Syed’s conviction.
On the other side is Brian Frosh, the Maryland attorney general who has never been indicted and, more than that, is widely respected for his integrity. Even when he was a member of the Maryland Senate, he enjoyed the high opinion of his peers. Frosh is widely regarded as a liberal and, given that, it seems implausible that he would be a party to intentionally keeping a truly innocent man in prison.
Both he and Mosby are lame ducks.
They both exit the public stage in a couple of months: Frosh chose not to run for reelection; Mosby lost her bid for a third term as the city’s top prosecutor.
The last few weeks have been unseemly, with Mosby throwing shade at Frosh, suggesting that he and his staff, through the appeals process, prevented disclosure of the other suspects in the Syed case. Frosh countered by saying that accusation was unfounded and by questioning the basis for Syed’s release.
He’s not the only one with questions about this hasty process.
We learned that Syed’s defense attorney, now deceased, represented one of the other suspects in the case before a grand jury (and her firm later handled his divorce). It’s hard to believe that attorney was not aware at some point that someone other than Syed might be suspected of the murder.
It was also weird to learn from Frosh that Kevin Urick, the original prosecutor of Syed, had not been interviewed during Mosby’s review of the case.
Since then, Urick has come forward to say his old notes about one of the other suspects in the case were misinterpreted, suggesting that Syed’s release from a life sentence might have been based on a mistake.
If that wasn’t unsettling enough, Wanda Heard, the retired judge who presided at Syed’s trial, said the conviction was good, that the “jury verdict was supported by substantial direct and circumstantial evidence.”
Syed’s side answers that the trial judge has no business in the post-conviction process and that all matters regarding Syed are now moot, because Mosby dismissed the charges against him.
But the story doesn’t end there. Frosh’s office believes the victim’s family was not given sufficient notice, as a matter of law, of Mosby’s intention to have Syed’s conviction vacated. What if, as unlikely as it seems, the decision to vacate does not stand? Wouldn’t that be totally weird, after Syed’s release and his triumphant exit from the courthouse?
Over the years — and more so recently, partly because of Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit — we’ve seen several guilty verdicts overturned after they were determined to have been wrongful. Usually these determinations are made after long and diligent review and DNA tests.
But, however exhaustive the review of the Syed case was, it still sparked questions.
And it’s difficult to separate all these developments from the fact that Mosby is facing federal charges. She’s been accused of criminal dishonesty in obtaining financial relief during the pandemic. Given that, she might have seen Syed’s release not only as a matter of justice for him but as positive pretrial publicity for her. That’s speculation, of course, but the circumstances — and the personality — invite it.
Usually, in wrongful convictions, the news media does not question the decision to let an innocent person go. It’s even more odd to hear a legal authority — in the Syed case, the Maryland attorney general — challenge, on any basis, a determination of a wrongful conviction.
As I said, we’ve been delivered to a strange place, no closer to the truth about Hae Min Lee’s murder.
It reminds me of a wrongful conviction case in Anne Arundel County 30 years ago. Witnesses against a man accused of armed robbery and murder admitted to having lied in court at the behest of a police detective. When the defendant was released from prison after 14 years, the chief prosecutor refused to say the man was innocent, suggesting that, despite the perjured testimony, he was the real killer. It was hard to know what to believe. Truth remained forever elusive.