Lawyers for Adnan Syed have asked the Maryland Supreme Court to deny a petition from the family of Hae Min Lee asking the justices to take up an appeal in the case and expand victims’ rights, arguing that the result would be “wildly impractical, if not disastrous” and “fundamentally change our legal system.”
In court documents filed on Wednesday, Erica Suter and Brian Zavin, Syed’s attorneys, wrote that Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, is not seeking the right to make a victim impact statement.
Instead, he’s asking the justices to rule that a victim’s representative can act as a party in a hearing when the interests of a prosecutor and defendant are aligned, challenging evidence put forward in court and cross-examining witnesses. That’s “radically different” than the right to speak, Suter and Zavin said.
“Conferring party status on victims and their representatives would create a sea change in Maryland courts,” Suter and Zavin said. “To the extent Mr. Lee seeks to fundamentally change our legal system, his request should be directed to the General Assembly.”
Suter is lead counsel in the case and director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Zavin is co-counsel and chief attorney of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Division.
They argue that Young Lee’s goal to act in place of a prosecutor is not recognized in any state or Washington, D.C., or the federal court system. Suter and Zavin also noted that the courts should and do encourage people to reach agreements in cases.
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 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.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office in 2022 filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction after reporting that an approximately one-year investigation had revealed that prosecutors did not turn over exculpatory evidence and uncovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
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 travel and attend in person. She allowed him to make a victim impact statement over Zoom.
“This is not a podcast for me,” he said. “This is real life.”
Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee, filed a notice of appeal and then asked the courts to put the case on hold. But the state’s attorney at the time, Marilyn Mosby, dropped the charges, citing the results of new DNA testing.
The Appellate Court of Maryland later ruled 2-1 to reinstate Syed’s conviction and sentence after finding that Young Lee’s rights to notice and in-person attendance were violated. The three-judge panel ordered a new, legally complaint and transparent hearing in the case.
But the judges held that Young Lee did not have a right to speak during the court proceedings.
Syed filed an appeal, and the family of Hae Min Lee then submitted their own petition asking the Maryland Supreme Court to take up the case.
In court documents filed on June 8, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Jawor wrote that both sides have raised “novel questions of broad public importance” and asked the state’s highest court to consider the case.
Syed has always maintained his innocence, and the case received international attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial.” He has remained free during the appeals process.
This story has been corrected to identify Brian Zavin’s role as co-counsel and chief attorney of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Division.