Maryland Supreme Court hears oral argument in Adnan Syed case

Published 10/5/2023 1:48 p.m. EDT, Updated 10/5/2023 3:39 p.m. EDT

Adnan Syed and mother Shamim Syed  speak to the press after the Maryland Supreme Court hearing on Thursday to hear oral argument in the Adnan Syed case.

Standing in front of the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis, Adnan Syed put his arm around his mother, Shamim, and then walked up to a microphone to address a crowd of waiting reporters.

Syed has been out of prison for more than one year since a Baltimore judge granted a motion to throw out his conviction in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. Her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999. She was 18.

But a Maryland appeals court later moved to reinstate his conviction and ordered a new hearing in the case, which received international attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial.” It tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in an unprecedented way and ignited a true-crime phenomenon that continues to this day.

He thanked everyone who has provided him and his family with support and encouragement throughout the years, stating that’s “just meant so much to us.”

Syed, now 42, of Baltimore County, made those remarks on Thursday after the Maryland Supreme Court heard oral argument in an appeal that could decide whether he remains free. The justices will issue an opinion at a later date.

“We look forward to hearing the court’s decision,” Syed said. “And we’re hoping that in the end, we’ll have a chance to prove justice, not just for Hae’s family, but for our family as well.”

Syed 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.

From the beginning, Syed has maintained his innocence, and he recently summoned reporters to his family’s home, where he walked them through a presentation about the case and called for Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

Throughout the years, there have been a number of twists and turns in the case.

Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn granted the motion and ordered Syed to immediately be released from prison. “Remove the shackles from Mr. Syed, please,” she said. Prosecutors had 30 days to take action such as scheduling a new date for trial or dismissing the charges.

Phinn denied a request from Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, to postpone the hearing for one week so he could attend in person. She allowed him to make a statement over Zoom.

“This is not a podcast for me,” Young Lee told Phinn. “This is real life.”

Steve Kelly, an attorney who previously represented Young Lee, moved to 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.

The mid-level appeals court held that Young Lee did not have a right to be heard at the hearing, though there was nothing preventing a judge from letting him speak. The ruling has been put on hold from taking effect pending the outcome of the litigation.

The Maryland Supreme Court later agreed to take up appeals from both sides. The legal issues in the case are technical and complex, and there have been hundreds of pages of court filings.

Syed’s attorneys — Erica Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and Brian Zavin, chief attorney of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Division — argue that the state’s decision to drop the charges against their client renders the appeal moot.

Even if the appeal is not moot, Suter and Zavin contend that Young Lee received more notice than required of the hearing, and the fact that he watched the court proceedings on Zoom satisfied his right of attendance. They also assert that he failed to show that there was a “reasonable probability” that the outcome would have been different had he appeared in person.

They’re asking the justices to reverse the ruling from the intermediate appeals court.

If Young Lee had a right to be heard, Justice Steven B. Gould questioned whether the justices would at least have to entertain if that would have affected the outcome of the hearing.

Suter said the court could already conduct that analysis based on the record in the case. That’s because Young Lee, she noted, spoke at the hearing before the judge made her ruling.

“Well, counsel didn’t have the right to be heard, and counsel didn’t have the opportunity to argue that the petition itself was defective, or that the burden had not been satisfied by the state,” Gould said.

Later, Justice Shirley M. Watts asked, “But just on the concept of the hypothetical, do you agree?” “Yes, your honor,” Suter replied.

Toward the end, Suter reiterated her position that the case is moot, adding that the court could issue an advisory opinion if it was troubled with how the hearing took place.

”The death of Hae Min Lee, and the loss suffered by her family, is unquestionably a tragedy,” Suter said after oral argument. “So too is the incalculable loss that Adnan and his family have suffered when he spent over half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.”

“We look forward to the court’s decision, and we’re hopeful that justices would choose to leave Adnan where he is — where he belongs — with his family,” she added.

Meanwhile, David Sanford and Ari Rubin, Young Lee’s attorneys, contend that while the mid-level appeals court correctly ruled that their client’s rights to notice and attendance were violated, the three-judge panel made a mistake in concluding that he was not entitled to speak.

“This case is not about Mr. Syed’s underlying innocence or guilt,” Rubin said. “That dispute is simply not in the room today.”

Rubin asked the court to uphold the decision in all regards but rule that his client had the right to be heard and challenge the evidence in the case. Because the state and the defense were aligned, he said, there was no one to act as an adversary to provide a check on the evidence.

“Mr. Rubin, why isn’t this a question for the General Assembly?” Justice Brynja M. Booth asked. “The right that you’re speaking of is not in the plain language of the statute.”

“We believe it is in the plain language of the statute, your honor,” Rubin replied.

Rubin agreed that the court has independent rule-making authority but stated that it should “treat the Constitution as a floor, not a ceiling.”

Sanford and Rubin stood with their client and also spoke to the press after oral argument.

”We do not take a position with respect to Adnan Syed’s underlying guilt or innocence,” Sanford said. “Today was about Young Lee, who was here today, and his rights to have notice, to be present and to be heard meaningfully in a criminal justice proceeding. Those rights were violated in this process.”

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General is asking the high court to uphold the previous decision.

“This case is not a zero-sum game,” Assistant Attorney General Derek Simmonsen said. “Mr. Lee’s rights as a victim’s representative in this case could have been honored without preventing the state from using its authority to seek to vacate petitioner’s convictions in this case.”

Young Lee, he asserted, could address the court and make a wide-ranging statement. But Simmonsen said that would not extend to introducing evidence or calling witnesses.

Chief Justice Matthew J. Fader recused himself from the case.

Besides his mother, Syed attended the hearing with those including his young brother, Yusuf, and Rabia Chaudry, an attorney, advocate and author of “Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial.” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue was also present.

Following his release from prison, Georgetown University hired Syed to work at its Prisons and Justice Initiative. He has also helped take care of his elderly parents.

Syed has said he will respect whatever the state’s highest court decides in the case.

“If that court makes a decision that I have to return to prison,” Syed told reporters at his family’s home, “I’m going to be there: I’m going to be in prison.”

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