Adnan Syed, who served more than 20 years in prison in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School — in a case that received international attention with the podcast “Serial” — on Wednesday asked a Maryland appeals court to reconsider its decision to reinstate his conviction and sentence.
In the motion for reconsideration, Erica Suter and Brian Zavin, Syed’s attorneys, argued that a three-judge panel of the Appellate Court of Maryland failed to require that Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, show how the outcome of a key hearing would have been different had he attended in person.
Suter and Zavin noted that courts in Maryland have held that automatically reversing the convictions of defendants in criminal cases who allege that their constitutional right to be present was violated is not the norm. They must show that such an error was not harmless.
“This case demonstrates the profound harm caused by wrongful convictions — both for Hae Min’s family, who lost their daughter and sister and have yet to receive true answers about her death; and for Adnan’s family, who lost their son and brother for more than 20 years for a crime he did not commit,” Suter said in a statement.
“Clarifying the extent to which victims like Young Lee are entitled to be present in the courtroom for a vacatur hearing should not extend the wrongful conviction, deep trauma, and possible incarceration of a man and family who have already endured decades of injustice,” she added.
Suter is lead counsel and an assistant public defender who serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Zavin is co-counsel for the appeal and chief of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Division.
Syed, 41, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment, and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
He has always maintained his innocence. His case has wound through the courts for years with several twists and turns.
In 2022, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, pointing to the findings of an an almost one-year investigation that uncovered that prosecutors did not disclose exculpatory evidence and turned up information about two possible alternative suspects.
Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn granted the motion and ordered Syed to immediately be released from prison. He walked out of the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse as a free man to a crowd of supporters. The state had 30 days to either set a new date for trial or drop the charges.
Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee, filed a notice of appeal and then asked to courts to put the case on hold, arguing that his client neither received adequate notice nor a meaningful opportunity to participate in the hearing.
The state’s attorney at the time, Marilyn Mosby, then dropped the charges before a court could rule on the request for a stay. She cited the results of new DNA testing that excluded Syed as a contributor.
The Appellate Court of Maryland allowed the appeal to proceed.
Kelly asked for a redo of the hearing during which he could call witnesses, put on evidence and question information that prosecutors put forward. He acknowledged during oral argument that would require the appeals court, at least for the time being, to reinstate Syed’s conviction and sentence.
In the 2-1 opinion on March 28, Appellate Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote for the majority that Phinn erred when she ruled that Young Lee received sufficient notice of the hearing and denied his request to attend in person, which violated his rights as a crime victim’s representative.
The appeals court reinstated Syed’s conviction and sentence and ordered a new hearing. The directive was not set to take effect for 60 days.
Appellate Judge Stuart R. Berger dissented, writing that he would have found the appeal to be moot.
“The Maryland Constitution and the collective wisdom of the Maryland State Legislature recognize victims’ rights as being an essential part of the legal fabric of Maryland,” said David Sanford, an attorney representing Young Lee, in a statement. “We have confidence that the Appellate Court will uphold those rights again.”
Steve Klepper, an appellate attorney in Baltimore who is not involved in the appeal, said he believes that motions for reconsideration are most often appropriate when a court decides a case in an unexpected way that could have unintended consequences.
Young Lee’s attorneys, he said, argued that their client not only had the right to be present — but that he could cross-examine and present evidence. But the appeals court held that he was only entitled to appear in person.
Despite that fact, Young Lee was allowed to make a statement at the hearing.
“On that narrower right, the question changes,” Klepper said. “And it becomes, ‘How did it change the result that Mr. Lee was able to attend only by Zoom and not in person?’”
If the decision stands, Klepper said, it could make it much easier for people to challenge their convictions if they were denied the right to be present for some portion of their trial.
“It would open the door to many more claims based on what the public would consider technicalities,” Klepper said.
Since his release from prison, Georgetown University hired Syed to work at its Prisons and Justice Initiative. It’s unclear when the appeals court will rule on the motion.