The Maryland appeals court’s decision to reinstate Adnan Syed’s murder conviction stunned legal experts and listeners of the hit podcast “Serial” around the world.
In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that a lower court violated the rights of the family of the slain Hae Min Lee by not providing them more notice before a hearing that set Syed free. The judges ordered a redo.
“Totally unexpected,” said University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert, who represented Syed during a bail hearing two decades ago. “If this sets a precedent, it means that the victim’s lobby is now a major player in our criminal system.”
There’s much to unpack in the court’s ruling. For now, the biggest question remains: Will Syed be able to keep his freedom?
Syed to make next move
Since he walked free from a Baltimore courtroom six months ago, Syed has set about rebuilding his life outside of prison. He took a job at Georgetown University to help students investigate wrongful convictions. He helped care for his parents and spent his first Ramadan with them at home since he was locked up, his friend and advocate Rabia Chaudry said.
Now, Syed and his defense team face a decision. Do they appeal to the Supreme Court of Maryland? Do they accept the ruling and redo the hearing that brought his freedom?
Syed has declined interviews since his release. But his attorney Erica Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said they intend to appeal to Maryland highest court.
Review by Maryland’s Supreme Court isn’t guaranteed. The court may receive more than 400 petitions a year and judges review fewer than one-quarter of these cases, according to Maryland appellate attorney Steve Klepper.
Still, Klepper said the Supreme Court would likely accept Syed’s case because Tuesday’s ruling was “reported,” meaning it sets precedent; one judge dissented, which is unusual; and it presented new issues in the interpretation of law.
Chaudry told her followers online Wednesday that the matter could drag on for another year should Syed’s defense team appeal. Even then, the state Supreme Court could affirm the lower court’s decision to send Syed back to redo the hearing.
He remains free while his attorneys plan their next step. The judges allowed them 60 days to decide.
Redo could bring scrutiny to new evidence
Tuesday’s decision rested on the judges’ opinion that Lee’s family deserved more notice, but the judges also noted omissions by prosecutors about their new evidence in the case.
Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman asked the court in September to throw out Syed’s conviction in part because of “Brady violations,” or instances where relevant evidence was not shared with Syed’s defense. She wrote of the discovery of a handwritten note by the trial prosecutor that, according to Feldman, made reference to an alternate suspect with a motive to kill Hae Min Lee.
She also wrote of learning new information about the violent record of an alternate suspect, and that property records connect an alternate suspect to the area where authorities found Lee’s abandoned car.
Syed was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing of Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.
Feldman’s new evidence was not challenged at the September hearing, but afterward the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said the note was open to interpretation.
Documents obtained by The Banner showed the trial prosecutor maintained that he wasn’t referring to an alternate suspect — but Syed himself. The attorney general’s office noted Feldman did not ask the trial prosecutor about the meaning of the note.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the judges noted the law requires prosecutors to “state in detail” their reasons to throw out a conviction. The judges explained in a footnote:
“The State’s motion did not identify the two alternate suspects or explain why the State believed those suspects committed the murder without Mr. Syed,” the judges wrote. “The note indicating that one of the suspects had motive to kill Hae is not part of the record on appeal, and in the State’s October 25, 2022 response, the Office of the Attorney General stated that there is other information in the note that was relevant but not cited in the motion to vacate.”
Also in her September motion, Feldman wrote that she wasn’t arguing that Syed was innocent, but that her office had no confidence in his conviction. The next week, then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby went further to say she will certify Syed as innocent unless his DNA was found during new tests of Lee’s skirt, pantyhose, jacket and shoes. The results showed no match for Syed, Mosby later said, and the case was dropped on Oct. 11.
The judges wrote Tuesday that Mosby did not explain why the absence of DNA evidence would exonerate Syed. They referenced case law from 2017 that found “where there was no evidence that a perpetrator came into contact with the tested items, the absence of a defendant’s DNA ‘would not tend to establish that he was not the perpetrator of the crime.’”
Case could fall into Ivan Bates’ lap
In the months since Syed was set free, Mosby and Feldman left the office. If Syed’s case returns to Baltimore Circuit Court, it would fall to the administration of State’s Attorney Ivan Bates.
While a candidate, Bates has said he would drop the charges against Syed, but lately he’s been less outspoken about the case. He declined to discuss the case after he won the Democratic nomination, and his office issued a statement Tuesday simply saying prosecutors were reviewing the court’s decision. Asked again Wednesday, the office referred back to the same statement.
”We must allow the appeals process to play itself out, Mr. Syed and his legal team may file for an appeal to the Maryland Supreme Court, and we must respect their rights to do so until those rights are either heard or that request is denied,” spokesman James Bentley said. “We are in a holding pattern. Any further comment would be premature at this time.”
Still, Chaudry told her followers that she considers Bates a friend and assumes he will not change course.
Court ruling brings check on prosecutor’s new power to overturn cases
Feldman overturned Syed’s murder conviction under a relatively new state law that gives prosecutors greater authority to reverse old convictions that they consider unfair. Tuesday’s ruling by the appeals court brings a check on that power.
Maryland lawmakers passed the bill in 2019; Mosby lobbied for the new powers. At the time, she argued for the need to erase convictions stemming from the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force unit, and crimes of marijuana possession. Prosecutors previously had limited legal avenues to overturn these old convictions.
In Syed’s case, however, Mosby applied the new power to a high-profile proceeding in which the defendant’s guilt or innocence has been the subject of much debate.
“This [legislative] history suggests that the statute was intended to be used when there was no dispute that the convictions should be reversed, although the ultimate language does not include any such limitation,” the judges noted.
Reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article.