The Maryland Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on Thursday morning in the long-running case of Adnan Syed, the subject of the podcast “Serial” who has spent more than 23 years fighting charges that he killed his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
The state’s high court is considering whether the Baltimore City Circuit Court violated the right of Young Lee, Ms. Lee’s brother, to have been notified of and to attend a hearing, in which a judge vacated Mr. Syed’s murder conviction and freed him from prison last year.
Mr. Syed’s conviction had been set aside because the prosecution acknowledged that it failed to turn over evidence that could have helped him at trial and had uncovered new evidence pointing to two possible suspects who have not been named publicly or charged.
In a 2-to-1 decision in March, the Appellate Court of Maryland reinstated Mr. Syed’s murder conviction, finding that Mr. Lee’s rights as a victim’s representative had been violated by the circuit court.
The appeals court ordered the Baltimore court to hold a new hearing on the motion to vacate Mr. Syed’s conviction and to give Mr. Lee enough notice to attend in person, unlike the previous hearing, which he joined via Zoom from California, where he lives.
Could Mr. Syed go back to prison?
Mr. Syed, 42, has remained free despite his conviction being reinstated, and his lawyers have said that the state’s attorney’s office for Baltimore City, the attorney general’s office in Maryland and Ms. Lee’s family have not sought his reimprisonment.
“Yet that is the unspoken but necessary result of the relief Mr. Lee seeks in his appeal and which the Appellate Court granted: the reinstatement of Mr. Syed’s convictions and life sentence for first-degree murder and other offenses,” Mr. Syed’s lawyers wrote in a legal brief urging the Maryland Supreme Court to reverse the appeals court decision and vacate the conviction once again. “The terrifying specter of reincarceration has hung over Mr. Syed’s head every day for the past 10 months.”
Speaking to reporters at his family’s home on Sept. 19, one year after he was freed, Mr. Syed said he would respect whatever decision the Maryland Supreme Court made. A ruling in the case is not expected until later this year.
“If that court makes a decision that I have to return to prison, I’m going to be there,” Mr. Syed said. “I’m going to be in prison. And I’ll be right there, as we’ve been for 24 years. We don’t have anything to hide. We’re a family. We’ve suffered so much — all due to a wrongful conviction that had nothing to do with Hae’s murder.”
What is Mr. Lee asking for?
Mr. Lee’s lawyers have urged the Maryland Supreme Court to uphold the appeals court decision and to honor what they call Mr. Lee’s right to have a “meaningful role” in the motion to vacate Mr. Syed’s conviction.
Mr. Lee’s lawyers said the state only notified Mr. Lee on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022, that there would be an “in-person hearing” on the motion the following Monday.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court then “barreled through” the hearing, “effectively gagging” Mr. Lee, who was not given a chance to review the evidence beforehand, his lawyers wrote.
The court “permitted Mr. Lee to deliver just a brief statement via Zoom, where he could express only confusion and frustration with the process,” his lawyers wrote.
They added that the right of victims’ representatives to meaningfully participate in such hearings is especially critical in this case, given that the prosecutor, the defense and the judge all agreed that the conviction should be vacated.
“He was the only one positioned to test the evidence and question the arguments,” they wrote in a brief to the Maryland Supreme Court. “Without him, the court’s review of highly disputed claims was hollow and, in the end, merely performative.”
What is Mr. Syed telling the court?
Mr. Syed’s lawyers have argued that Mr. Lee’s complaints “became moot” when prosecutors dropped the charges against Mr. Syed on Oct. 11, 2022, ending the criminal case against him.
Even if Mr. Lee’s case was not moot, Mr. Syed’s lawyers wrote, Mr. Lee’s right to attend the hearing was not violated just because he joined via Zoom. They added that Mr. Lee could not prove that any violation of his rights would have changed the outcome of the hearing.
Why outside legal groups are weighing in.
Both sides of the case have drawn interest from victims’ rights groups and groups that seek to overturn wrongful convictions.
In a legal brief supporting Mr. Lee, the National Crime Victim Law Institute urged the Maryland Supreme Court to ensure that victims’ rights are “not unfilled promises, ignored without consequence, but rather that they are enforceable rights.”
“Victims must be appropriately informed, present and heard, and treated with the dignity they deserve,” the institute wrote.
In August, more than 70 people who have been wrongly convicted filed a legal brief supporting Mr. Syed.
Among those who signed the brief were Amanda Knox, who was wrongly convicted of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy, and Yusef Salaam, one of the five Black and Latino men known as the Central Park Five whose convictions were overturned in the 1989 rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park. The brief was filed by Martin H. Tankleff, who is now a lawyer after being wrongly convicted of murdering his parents on Long Island.
The men and women who signed the brief wrote that they had collectively spent over 1,220 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
“Exonerees suffer enough upon release,” they wrote. “Adnan Syed should not be exposed to any further suffering by being denied the opportunity to move forward and live his life and not have to continue fighting in court.”