When Becky Feldman filed a petition last week to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed, it set off a frenzy: For the past eight years, his murder conviction had been one of the most closely watched in the country, pored over in court challenges, podcasts and an HBO documentary.
Two days later, Feldman was spending Friday afternoon at a similar hearing without any fanfare, setting free a man who had served almost 30 years for a murder in Sandtown-Winchester that took place when he was 15 years old.
The two cases are among hundreds taken on by Feldman in the past 18 months since she left a career in the public defender’s office to join a unit created by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to review sentences. She’d spent 15 years doing such post-conviction work from the opposite side.
Feldman says her unit has freed more than 40 people serving life sentences. The average length of time served has been 34 years, with those released being 57 years old on average. She’s currently working on about 90 cases that meet the criteria, and said there are 90 more on deck.
“This is just another one of my cases,” Feldman told The Baltimore Banner in an interview about the chronology of the Syed case.
The process started last fall when Syed’s defense attorney, Erica Suter, asked Feldman to review his case for relief under the Juvenile Restoration Act, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2021. The act allows people who’ve served least 20 years in prison for crimes they committed as children to have their sentences re-examined. It is not designed to vacate a conviction.
As Feldman examined the files and evidence, she found an “abundance of issues that gave overwhelming cause for concern,” she said in court.
Feldman has not simply experienced the criminal justice system as an advocate for prisoners, but also firsthand as a family member of a victim when her brother was killed in a robbery in North Baltimore while she was in law school.
Lenny Kling Jr., 22, was fatally shot about a year after Hae Min Lee was found in Leakin Park, meaning their families were navigating the system around the same time. Feldman said the homicide detectives and prosecutor were “phenomenal; they brought me closure.” She thought about becoming a prosecutor.
But as a judicial clerk for two years, she saw a more complicated picture.
“I started to see it’s not bad vs. good. ... I started to feel empathy for both sides,” she said. That view was reinforced as she joined with the public defender’s office to work closely with clients who had served 20, 30, even 40 years or more.
She took the lead on freeing prisoners under the Unger decision, in which the state’s highest court ruled that flawed jury instructions required new trials for people sentenced before 1981. The ruling resulted in the release of nearly 200 men, many of them geriatric prisoners who had served in excess of 30 years.
In 2020, she saw an advertisement to join a new unit in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. It struck her as a novel concept that would require her to take into account public safety and the victim’s interests, instead of simply advocating for a client.
“Justice can also mean someone has served enough time, and can be successfully released,” she said.
After being chronicled in the “Serial” podcast in 2014, Syed won a new trial from a Baltimore Circuit Court judge two years later, which was reaffirmed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in 2018. But the state’s highest court turned back those rulings, and Syed’s advocates were looking for new angles. Though many people have advocated for Syed, his case had gone quiet in recent years.
Feldman says she did listen to “Serial” about a year after it first came out at the urging of a colleague. “I remember thinking, this guy deserves a new trial, but I’m not convinced he’s innocent. And that was it,” she said. At the time, she was deputy director of the post-conviction unit of the public defender’s office, and though it was the most famous post-conviction case in the state, Syed had private counsel.
Syed’s case was brought to Feldman in the state’s attorney’s office in the fall of October 2021 by Suter, the new director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, who had taken on the case.
Suter declined to be interviewed, but Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said Suter’s efforts should not be overlooked: “None of this happens without her tremendous work ... pushing the state to do what they should have done years ago.”
In an interview and a detailed presentation in court Monday, Feldman received case files from Suter on Oct. 2. Syed immediately struck her as a good candidate for the Juvenile Restoration Act. “I think he got one infraction during his entire incarceration, which is remarkable in and of itself, and it was something like possessing a cell phone,” she said. “He checked all the boxes.”
She requested to view the state’s trial file from the attorney general’s office on May 12 of this year. After some back-and-forth, they said she could come to their office to view the file and copy documents. She made her visit on June 22.
There were 17 boxes total — the first seven contained files from the original prosecution team within the state’s attorney’s office. The rest related to post-conviction and related appeals, including the attorney general’s office’s review.
Feldman said she and Suter uncovered things that begged for a new trial, such as handwritten notes about another suspect that had not been turned over to the defense.
“Mr. Syed was unaware of the existence of this information or that the state possessed it in its files until 2022,” Suter wrote in a court filing last week.
Feldman said she was “disturbed” by the undisclosed documents. But she also says she also simply viewed some of the existing questions differently than previous prosecutors, such as cellphone tower location evidence that was challenged extensively in Syed’s 2016 post-conviction proceedings. The attorney general’s office called an FBI agent, an expert on cellphone technology, who said the cellphone evidence was accurate and reliable, but Feldman said she consulted two experts who disagreed.
Syed’s release came from a motion filed by the state to vacate his conviction, a mechanism that wasn’t available to prosecutors in Maryland until 2019, when Mosby lobbied the legislature following the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal. There was previously no clear procedural right for a prosecutor to ask a judge to revisit a conviction, prosecutors say.
Questions have been raised about the state’s attorney’s office’s motivations and timing, and Lee’s brother expressed displeasure with the process.
Despite the swirl of controversy around the case, prior to Feldman’s review, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office had been hands-off regarding the case, deferring to the attorney general’s office. Though the city’s prosecutor’s office has a conviction integrity unit that has exonerated 11 men to great fanfare, that unit did not take up the case. A spokeswoman for the office said defense attorneys must ask prosecutors for such a review.
Mosby, “to my knowledge, didn’t know anything about [the] Syed [case], never dove into it,” Feldman said.
The petition to release Syed was filed as Mosby was attending what was supposed to be the final pretrial hearing before her federal perjury trial, which was postponed until the spring just days before jury selection. And Monday’s hearing took place on what would have been the first day of her jury trial.
The story was also walked to national media outlets: The Wall Street Journal was first to report on the petition and Mosby gave her first and only interview about the case to ABC’s “Nightline.”
Feldman insists that Mosby was not dictating the timeline. New DNA testing results were received in August, and Feldman said she had been working on drafts of the petition for weeks. She said the case had come to a “natural stopping point.”
“We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in results of the first trial, would be unjust,” Mosby said in a statement last week.
Meanwhile, Lee’s brother tearfully told the court on Monday that he felt “betrayed” after being told for two decades that prosecutors stood behind the conviction. “I always thought the state was on my side,” said Young Lee, appearing over Zoom during the hearing.
For now, prosecutors aren’t saying that they believe Syed is innocent, but that he deserves a new trial. They generally would have to take steps towards trying him again 30 days after his release.
After the commotion dies down over the Syed case, and a new administration takes over in the state’s attorney’s office, Feldman hopes to continue doing the work of identifying prisoners who should be released.
“I think it’s really important,” she said.
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