“I think it’s unfortunate that, you know, you have certain attorneys that try to exploit families,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said, clearly a swipe at the lawyer representing the relatives of the late Hae Min Lee, the teenager who for 23 years was the affirmed victim of Adnan Syed, but now no longer.
It apparently wasn’t enough for Mosby to enjoy the national spotlight again, this time for her lead role in “Serial” Syed’s release from prison. Baltimore’s outgoing (and federally indicted) chief prosecutor could not resist a cheap shot at Steve Kelly, the attorney for Lee’s relatives, who feel they were treated as an afterthought once Mosby decided that Syed’s 1999 murder conviction should be vacated.
Mosby dismissed claims that her office had neglected Lee’s family by failing to give Lee’s brother, for one, enough time to get from California to Baltimore for the September hearing that led to Syed’s release. Kelly is taking the Lee family’s grievance to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Though that effort is probably futile at this point, if you were his client — given terse and short notice that the man convicted of killing your sister was suddenly having his conviction vacated — you’d probably claim foul as well.
But, back to Mosby’s cheap shot: “I think it’s unfortunate that … you have certain attorneys that try to exploit families.”
In fact, Kelly is a longtime victims rights advocate, going back to his days at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, where he established a program in crime prevention and victims rights and helped start a crime victim’s support organization for Harford County residents. He learned as much as he could about victim’s rights. As an attorney, he’s represented victims, pro bono, for years. He’s trained other attorneys in the statutory rights of crime victims and their relatives.
So, despite what Mosby says, it doesn’t appear that Steve Kelly is “exploiting” Lee’s survivors. They’re not paying him, for one thing. He’s doing what he has done countless times for years — representing a crime victim’s relatives pro bono, meaning free of charge.
Kelly’s reasons for doing this go back to the late 1980s, when his 28-year-old sister, Mary Kelly, was the victim of a still unsolved murder. At the time, Steve Kelly was 14. He felt police detectives and Harford’s chief prosecutor treated his family poorly, though he used another adjective when we spoke. Investigators, he says, exhibited class bias against his family and did not pursue the case with vigor. He and his brothers became consumed with anger and, according to a 2009 profile of Kelly in The Daily Record, they thought about killing the lead suspect.
But by 1992, according to an account in The Sun, Kelly had established at his high school a life-skills class in both avoiding crime and helping victims. He spent a summer as an intern with the National Crime Prevention Council. He told The Sun that he hoped to pursue a career in law. He went to college and took a job working with low-income crime victims for the Stephanie Roper Foundation, named for the young Maryland murder victim whose mother became the state’s leading advocate for victims rights.
So that’s Steve Kelly, the man Mosby accused of “exploiting” Hae Min Lee’s family.
When we spoke, Kelly could not say whether his appeal to the state’s intermediate appellate court would go anywhere. Mosby said this week she would not retry Syed for Hae Min Lee’s murder, so her family’s appeal might very well be moot.
Kelly was more concerned with what Mosby’s decision to vacate Syed’s conviction reveals about a new element in state law that grants prosecutors the power to seek to vacate convictions gained years earlier by their predecessors. The law, passed in Annapolis in 2019, resulted from the disgusting abuses of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, empowering prosecutors to review previous convictions and seek to have a court vacate any of questionable integrity.
The law provided a remedy for prosecutors who previously had no legal way to ask a judge to revisit a conviction and overturn one that prosecutors believe to have been wrongfully reached.
It sounds good, but what if the elected state’s attorney in Baltimore or any of the Maryland counties acts out of some political interest or racial bias? And who represents the victim or, say, the original prosecution team when a prosecutor presents a conviction for vacatur?
The vacating of Syed’s conviction, Kelly points out, occurred without any deep inquiry by the presiding judge and with an acceptance of the state’s conclusion that Syed’s conviction was flawed. It might have been right, but it all seemed rushed.
A short time later, Mosby reported that she would not pursue a retrial of Syed, suggesting that the lack of DNA evidence on the victim’s shoes somehow exonerated him. No one was around to offer a counter claim that it might not have mattered. (Syed was convicted without consequential DNA evidence.)
Kelly’s complaint is that the law, while intended to correct past wrongs, leaves the victims and survivors out of the process. The law requires “that a certain victim or victim’s representative be notified of a certain hearing,” but notifying and explaining are two very different things. “Her brother [Young Lee] viewed the state’s attorney all this time as his family’s lawyer,” Kelly says.