The defense team for Adnan Syed submitted legal arguments to Maryland’s highest court Wednesday, asking the justices to reverse an appellate court decision that reinstated Syed’s murder conviction in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.
In a 73-page brief, Syed’s public defenders argued the issue was moot because Baltimore prosecutors had already dismissed the case against Syed — and thus his conviction could not then be reinstated by the courts.
The appellate court’s reversal in March centered on a complaint by Hae Min Lee’s brother that he did not have sufficient notice to attend the hearing that brought Syed’s freedom. Syed’s attorneys, however, argued that Young Lee’s participation by Zoom was sufficient under the law. Further, they argued, Young Lee hasn’t shown how the proceedings would be different had he attended in person.
The litigation continues to revolve around legal procedure, not the merits of evidence that bought Syed’s freedom after 23 years in prison.
“The terrifying specter of reincarceration has hung over Mr. Syed’s head every day for the past ten months,” his attorneys wrote.
Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, Syed’s lead counsel and director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, issued a statement Wednesday, saying her client and his family continue to live with the fear that he could be sent back to prison.
“While Mr. Lee and his family have our deepest sympathies, their rights were honored throughout the vacatur proceedings and his physical presence in the courtroom would not have changed the outcome of that hearing,” she wrote. “This case should have ended after the State successfully moved to vacate Adnan’s convictions and then dismissed the charges against him. The Appellate Court’s decision marks a dangerous departure from prior practice and diminishes the State’s ability to look back and correct its mistakes.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to present our arguments to the Supreme Court, and grateful that Adnan remains free while we do so.”
Young Lee’s attorney has said the family is not challenging Syed’s release from prison. But Syed’s public defenders write that his return to prison is the “unspoken” end result of the Lee family’s appeal.
Syed, now 42, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment, and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
He was 17 at the time and has always maintained his innocence. The case received worldwide attention in 2014 with the release of the hit podcast “Serial.”
Following an almost one-year investigation, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office in 2022 filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, stating that prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence and reporting that the state had identified two possible alternative suspects.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn granted the motion and ordered Syed to immediately be released from prison. Prosecutors had 30 days to either schedule a new date for trial or drop the charges.
Phinn denied a request from Young Lee to delay the hearing for one week so he could attend the court proceeding in person. She allowed him to make a statement over Zoom.
Steve Kelly, one of Young Lee’s attorneys, filed a notice of appeal and asked the courts to put the case on hold. The state’s attorney at the time, Marilyn Mosby, then dropped the charges, citing the results of new DNA testing that excluded Syed as a contributor on several items. Mosby dismissed the case while Young Lee’s appeal was still pending.
The Appellate Court of Maryland later ruled 2-1 to reinstate Syed’s conviction and sentence, finding that Young Lee’s rights to prior notice of the hearing and in-person attendance were violated.
The justices will consider the legal questions that Syed raised in his appeal as well as the one that the Lee family presented in their own. Oral argument is scheduled for Oct. 5.