The Maryland Court of Special Appeals is allowing an appeal from the family of Hae Min Lee to proceed on grounds they did not receive sufficient notice before prosecutors dismissed the murder case against Adnan Syed of the hit podcast “Serial.”
In an order Friday, the appeals court denied requests from prosecutors and Syed’s defense attorney to reject the appeal. The judges directed the parties to submit further arguments about why the appeal is not moot, considering a lower court already dismissed Syed’s conviction and prosecutors dropped all charges against him.
Steve Kelly, the attorney for the Lee family, applauded Friday’s order.
“Hae Min Lee’s family is thrilled with today’s ruling. All they are seeking is what the law requires — a full evidentiary hearing in which they can meaningfully participate and one that makes public the relevant evidence,” he wrote in an email.
In a statement, Syed’s attorney Erica Suter said she remains confident in the outcome of his case and looks forward to briefing the procedural issues before the court.
“The appeal is not about Adnan’s innocence. As the court’s order makes clear, it is simply about whether the victim received proper notice of the vacatur hearing and whether the dismissal of all charges prevents the appeal from going forward,” she wrote.
The order means litigation will continue in the case into next year. Judges set a deadline of Dec. 9 for the Lee family attorney to file his arguments and Jan. 9 for Baltimore City prosecutors and Syed’s defense attorney. The court will consider the matter in its February session, pushing the case to the administration of incoming Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates. He did not return a message late Friday.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the order.
Syed was convicted in 2000 of murdering Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. His case captured international attention after it was explored in the “Serial” podcast. After a yearlong investigation, in September the office of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby asked the court to throw out the conviction. Then Mosby’s office dismissed all charges against him.
Mosby said she made the decision to dismiss the charges after receiving the results of new DNA testing, which excluded Syed as a contributor.
“As the administrator of the criminal justice system, it’s my duty to ensure that justice is not delayed, justice is never denied, but justice be done,” Mosby said at a news conference. “Today, justice is done.”
Syed, 41, was found guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing of Lee, who was 18 at the time. Her body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999.
Syed has always maintained his innocence.
Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction after the state reported it had discovered that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence and uncovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, conducted the investigation with Suter, an assistant public defender who serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Feldman wrote that prosecutors could no longer stand by the integrity of the conviction. The evidence that prosecutors did not disclose, she said, included a note that read, “He would make her disappear. He would kill her.” The pronoun referred to one of the alternative suspects, Feldman said.
One of the assistant state’s attorneys who prosecuted the case, Kevin Urick, later contended that the remark referred to Syed.
Phinn ordered Syed to be released from prison and placed him on home detention with GPS monitoring. Prosecutors had 30 days to either schedule a new date for trial or drop the case.
Kelly, the attorney for Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, then filed a notice of appeal and later asked the intermediate level appellate court to put the proceedings on hold. He had unsuccessfully asked Phinn to delay the hearing one week so his client could travel and attend in person. The Maryland Office of the Attorney General joined in that request for a pause.
Before the court could rule on those requests, Mosby’s office dropped the charges.
“By rushing to dismiss the criminal charges, the State’s Attorney’s Office sought to silence Hae Min Lee’s family and to prevent the family and the public from understanding why the State so abruptly changed its position of more than 20 years,” Kelly said in a statement last month. “All this family ever wanted was answers and a voice.”
Kelly said his client’s family did not want to affect Syed’s release from prison. Instead, he said, they wanted a hearing during which loved ones could appear and comment on the evidence.
In support of their appeal, retired Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard, who presided over Syed’s second trial, submitted an affidavit in which she wrote that a reading of the transcript shows that the verdict was “supported by substantial direct and circumstantial evidence.”
Heard was the first woman to serve as chief judge of Baltimore Circuit Court.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General questioned the integrity of the process used to free Syed and denied that the state withheld exculpatory evidence but conceded that the appeal was likely moot.
In addition to the worldwide attention the case received from “Serial,” which launched in 2014, the legal saga was explored in the HBO documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and the podcast “Undisclosed.”