Maryland’s second-highest court has reinstated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, ruling that a “new, legally compliant and transparent hearing” that does not violate the rights of victim Hae Min Lee’s family should take place.
The ruling, made by the majority of a three-judge panel, was yet another twist in a case that has been the subject of intense interest and years of legal proceedings. But it’s unclear whether the court’s instructions could lead to a different outcome for the “Serial” podcast subject: The judge said the new hearing should include a greater discussion of the evidence supporting the motion to vacate his conviction, and that Lee’s family can attend. But they denied the Lee family’s request to challenge that evidence.
The effect of the ruling was stayed for 60 days, allowing Syed time to mount an appeal to the state’s highest court. His attorney said he remains free “for the time being.”
“Because the circuit court violated Mr. [Young] Lee’s right to notice of, and his right to attend, the hearing on the State’s motion to vacate ... this Court has the power and obligation to remedy those violations, as long we can do so without violating Mr. Syed’s right to be free from double jeopardy,” the court wrote in an opinion posted Tuesday afternoon.
“We can do that, and accordingly, we vacate the circuit court’s order vacating Mr. Syed’s convictions, which results in the reinstatement of the original convictions and sentence.”
Prosecutors said they were reviewing the decision. Lee’s family cheered the outcome, while Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, said her client is being “re-traumatized” without basis over an issue of notice — not the substance of his exoneration.
“We remain optimistic that justice will be done,” said Suter, an assistant public defender and director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School.
Syed, now 41, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.
Her body was discovered in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999. She was 18.
At the time, Syed was 17. He has always maintained his innocence.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office moved to vacate his conviction in September, and the next month abruptly dropped the charges against Syed during an unannounced, one-minute hearing that was not listed on the public docket and caught the Lee family by surprise. Prosecutors dismissed the case before the appeals court could step in.
Tuesday’s Appellate Court of Maryland decision argued prosecutors attempted to short-circuit the appeals process by dropping the charges before Lee’s request to stop the decision could be heard.
“The State of Maryland has given constitutional and statutory rights to crime victims, and the State’s Attorney should not be allowed to thwart those rights in the way that happened in this case,” the judges wrote. “The nol pros entered under the circumstances of this case violated Mr. Lee’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The court said Lee’s brother should be given notice of a new hearing, “sufficient to allow him to attend in person,” where “evidence supporting the motion to vacate is presented, and the court states its reasons in support of its decision.”
Judge Stuart R. Berger dissented, writing that Lee’s participation via a Zoom video link did not violate his rights and went beyond the requirements by allowing him to participate.
”Not only did Mr. Lee ‘attend’ the proceeding — albeit virtually — as was his right under both the vacatur and the victims’ rights statutes, but the trial judge permitted both Mr. Lee and his counsel to address the court during the proceedings, something the Majority and I both agree neither statute requires,” Berger wrote.
The appeals court not only ordered the sides back to court, but asked prosecutors to justify their reasons for wanting to vacate Syed’s conviction. They initially supported this request in part on a handwritten note by the former trial attorney in Syed’s case.
They told the judge this note refers to an alternate suspect who made threats toward Lee and therefore it should have been shared with Syed’s defense as exculpatory evidence. In the weeks afterward, however, additional documents were obtained by The Banner that showed the trial prosecutor maintained that he wasn’t referring to an alternate suspect — but Syed himself.
Attorneys for the Lee family raised questions about the note in their appeal. But in Tuesday’s ruling, the judges denied requests that the Lee family attorney or attorney general’s office be allowed to challenge the evidence.
Syed’s friend Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and author of “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial,” addressed the court’s opinion on Twitter.
”We stand by the integrity of the evidence that exonerated Adnan and urge the Baltimore Police and States Attorney’s office to find the source of the DNA on the victims shoes and find Hae Min Lee’s actual killer,” she wrote.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has changed leadership since the hearing took place, and prosecutors were reviewing the ruling.
“We are in a holding pattern. Any further comment would be premature at this time,” said spokesperson James Bentley.
David Sanford, an attorney for the Lee family, said in a statement that they were “delighted that the Appellate Court of Maryland agrees with Mr. Lee that his right to have reasonable notice of the Syed vacatur hearing and his right to be physically present at that hearing were violated by the trial court.”
“We are equally pleased that the Appellate Court is directing the lower court to conduct a transparent hearing where the evidence will be presented in open court and the court’s decision will be based on evidence for the world to see,” Sanford said.
Maryland appellate attorney Steve Klepper, who has been following the case, said he believed the case is likely to be taken up by the Supreme Court of Maryland.
“This case has three points that together make review more likely than not,” he said. “The opinion is reported. There is a dissent, which happens in less than 1% of cases. And it presents novel issues of statutory construction.”
In 2022, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, citing the results of an approximately one-year investigation that revealed that prosecutors did not turn over exculpatory evidence and uncovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn granted the motion and ordered Syed to be released from prison. Prosecutors had 30 days to either schedule a new date for trial or drop the charges.
Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, filed a notice of appeal and asked to courts to put the case on hold, arguing that his client did not receive adequate notice or a meaningful opportunity to participate. But then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby later dropped the charges, citing the results of new DNA testing that excluded Syed as a contributor.
In a statement, Mosby said the decision “sets a dangerous precedent over a prosecutor’s ability to reverse an injustice.”
“We notified the victim’s family in line with Maryland law and best practices, and they attended virtually and spoke,” Mosby said. “To now send this case back to court prolongs the pain for the Lee family, and leaves a cloud hanging over a man who deserves to be free, Adnan Syed.”
Kelly asked the appeals court to order a redo of the hearing during which he could call witnesses, present evidence and question information that prosecutors put forward. He acknowledged that would require reinstating Syed’s conviction.
Suter, Syed’s attorney, argued that the appeal was moot because prosecutors had dropped the charges. Suter argued that a redo of the hearing would “wreak havoc on our criminal justice system.” She said that Young Lee is seeking new rights that are “well beyond the thoughtful and deliberate protection of victims’ rights currently enshrined in Maryland law.”
A panel composed of Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells, Berger and Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff heard oral argument on Feb. 2 in Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis.
Georgetown University has since hired Syed to work at its Prisons and Justice Initiative.
—Enterprise reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this story.