For six weeks, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard wrote in an affidavit filed late Thursday night, she presided over the second trial of Adnan Syed, whose case later received worldwide attention with the release of the podcast “Serial.”
Syed was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment in the killing of Hae Min Lee, 18, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. Her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999. Later, Heard sentenced him to serve life in prison plus 30 years.
Though transcripts do not always reflect the tone, manner and delivery of testimony, Heard said, it shows that the verdict in the case was “supported by substantial direct and circumstantial evidence.”
“I heard the evidence and all testimony,” said Heard, the first woman to serve as chief judge in Baltimore Circuit Court. “The verdict and the swift manner of the verdict being reached made it clear to the court that the jury weighed the credibility of the witnesses who testified and were subject to various cross examination.”
Heard submitted her affidavit as part of a response from Lee’s family to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals explaining why it should not throw out their appeal in light of prosecutors dropping the charges against Syed.
In the 33-page court filing, Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, wrote the Maryland Constitution and state law require victims of crime and their families be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity at all stages. The appeal, he said, is not moot because the state and the trial court “committed significant procedural errors.”
Kelly is asking the appeals court to order an evidentiary hearing during which family members can meaningfully participate. They’re not looking, he said in a statement, to affect Syed’s release from prison.
“Here, the voices of the Lee family were silenced. Prosecutors went out of their way to evade the Constitution’s absolute requirements,” Kelly said. “They provided the Lee family with barely any notice and no meaningful opportunity to appear and comment on the evidence.”
On Sept. 14, Becky Feldman, chief of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit, filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction. She said an approximately one-year investigation revealed the state did not turn over exculpatory evidence in Syed’s murder trial and discovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
Feldman conducted the investigation with Syed’s current attorney, Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, who also serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted the motion on Sept. 19 and ordered Syed to be released from prison. Prosecutors had 30 days to either set a new date for trial or drop the charges.
Kelly had unsuccessfully asked the judge to delay the hearing for one week to allow his client to appear in person. Phinn gave Young Lee time to come home from work and take part in the court proceedings over Zoom.
Next, Kelly filed a notice of appeal. He later asked the appellate court to put the case on hold during the litigation.
But State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby then dropped the charges on Oct. 11 after revealing she received the results of new DNA testing on several of Hae Min Lee’s items, which excluded Syed as a contributor.
“I’ve utilized my power and discretion to dismiss the case,” Mosby said at a news conference after she made the decision to drop the charges. “There’s no more appeal. It’s moot.”
Syed, now 41, has always maintained his innocence.
Kelly said his client’s family is not interested in litigating Syed’s “ultimate guilt or innocence.”
Instead, Kelly said, they’re entitled to an evidentiary hearing during which prosecutors would have to explain the “precise legal and evidentiary basis” for throwing out Syed’s conviction and provide Lee’s family with a “meaningful opportunity to be heard and to object.”
Even if the appellate court finds that the appeal is moot, Kelly said, the judges should still hear the case because it involves a matter of significant public interest as well as the fact that similar issues could come up in the future.
“The issues involved in Mr. Lee’s appeal affect not just his family,” said Kelly, who added that the way the law is written leaves it “dangerously prone to abuse, with the potential to harm many Marylanders’ rights.”
Earlier this week, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General filed an almost 60-page reply to a motion seeking to disqualify it from representing the state in the appeal and questioned the integrity of the process that freed Syed.
But Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote in the court documents that the Lee family’s appeal was “likely moot.”
In a statement, Emily Witty, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said it stands by its “extensive investigation and our ultimate finding that there is no credible evidence that Mr. Syed was involved in the death of Ms. Lee.”
Witty said the state has only released part of its findings to the public to protect the integrity of the open and pending investigation.
“Our office truly empathizes with the family of Hae Min Lee, which is why all along we’ve attempted to keep them apprised of each step of the legal process,” Witty said. “As we’ve already conveyed to the victim’s attorney, we remain committed to offering counseling services, detailing our investigation, and keeping open lines of communication with this family, who have clearly been re-victimized by the misdeeds of prior prosecutors.”