As the chief legal officer for Maryland, Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office argued to uphold the murder conviction against Adnan Syed of the hit podcast “Serial.”

Through a new twist in the legal saga, his office now stands to represent the city prosecutors who set Syed free.

It’s an unusual turn of events in the Baltimore murder case known around the world through the podcast, books and a popular HBO documentary series. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has blamed the trial prosecutor and Frosh’s office for keeping Syed behind bars for more than two decades.

On Wednesday, the family of the slain Hae Min Lee told the courts they will appeal the order that set him free. That would put the case back in Frosh’s hands.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It certainly makes this an unusual scenario in a case that is, frankly, fraught with unusual scenarios,” said David Jaros, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Frosh has denied wrongdoing by his office, saying Mosby is incorrect in her claims about evidence being withheld. On Thursday, he went further to say his opinion of the case hasn’t changed despite her office’s written motion that mentions the new evidence.

“There’s nothing in the motion that’s changed our view that the overwhelming evidence showed that Adnan murdered Hae Min Lee. That’s about as far as I’m going to go,” Frosh said.

The attorney general has been clear about his opposition to Syed’s release. Under state law, his office handles criminal appeals in Maryland. In the appellate courts, his office would not be bound to follow Mosby’s position on the case. That’s left legal observers guessing about which way the case might go on appeal.

“The Attorney General’s Office is tethered with multiple conflicts of interest, which clearly wish to maintain the conviction of Adnan Syed to protect themselves,” said Zy Richardson, spokeswoman for Mosby’s office. “It is hard to understand how this agency could ethically represent the State under these circumstances, or even be a neutral appellate party.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Defense attorneys for Syed declined to comment.

(left) Hae Min Lee, (right) Adnan Syed
Hae Min Lee, left, and Adnan Syed. (Handout)

Tensions between the Maryland attorney general and Baltimore state’s attorney aren’t new. In recent years, state lawmakers have asked Frosh to prosecute more criminal cases in Baltimore — over objections from Mosby.

Syed served more than 20 years in prison in connection to the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate, Hae Min Lee. He maintained his innocence even as his appeals fell short.

Two weeks ago, prosecutors and defense attorneys told the court they found new evidence of other suspects — evidence withheld from Syed’s defense, they claim — and they asked a judge to throw out his conviction. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn agreed and set Syed free while authorities reinvestigate the killing.

That’s left Mosby’s office to decide whether to prosecute Syed again or drop the murder charges against him.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Meanwhile, Lee’s family says they were not given adequate notice or a chance to participate before the judge’s decision.

“The idea here is just to give them enough information about the new evidence,” their attorney, Steve Kelly, told The Baltimore Banner. “All we want is a new hearing. That’s it. We are not seeking to have Mr. Syed put back in jail. We are not challenging anything about his release. We want a new hearing with a meaningful opportunity to participate.”

Victim families routinely weigh in on sentencing matters. But not everyone agrees the law affords a family the chance to be heard on a motion to vacate a conviction.

On Friday, Sept. 16, a Baltimore judge scheduled the hearing for the following Monday. That gave Lee’s brother one weekend; he joined the hearing that Monday by Zoom.

“There’s a steep hill to climb for the victim’s family to persuade a court that the short window by which they were given an opportunity to participate violated their rights,” said Jaros, at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It’s up to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to decide whether the family, or Frosh’s office, may also challenge the merits of the new evidence.

“There’s likely going to be vigorous debate over what issues are before the court on appeal,” said Steven Klepper, a Baltimore appellate lawyer.

Syed was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years. Prosecutors alleged that he killed Lee and dumped her body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.

During trial, prosecutors described him as a scorned lover who strangled Lee in the parking lot of the Best Buy off Security Boulevard in Baltimore County. Prosecutors asserted he then called his friend, Jay Wilds, to pick him up, and the two buried her in a shallow grave in the park.

Wilds pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was sentenced to five years in prison, with all time suspended, plus two years’ probation. He testified against Syed. But the years brought out inconsistencies in his statements.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Erica Suter, Syed’s most recent defense attorney, and Becky Feldman, of the state’s attorney’s office, spent the past year reinvestigating the case. They found messy, handwritten notes by the original prosecutor that refer to two tips authorities received about credible, alternate suspects. They told the judge these notes were not turned over to Syed’s defense.

According to the notes, one suspect said “he would make her (Ms. Lee) disappear. He would kill her.”

On the grounds of the notes and additional evidence, the judge released Syed last week and placed him on home detention with a GPS monitor.

tim.prudente@thebaltimorebanner.com

More From The Banner