The Maryland Office of the Attorney General on Tuesday criticized the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office for how it has treated the family of Hae Min Lee and questioned the integrity of the process that resulted in the freedom of Adnan Syed.
Following an almost one-year investigation, Baltimore Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, filed a motion last month to throw out Syed’s conviction, reporting that the state had discovered that prosecutors did not turn over exculpatory information and uncovered evidence of two possible alternative suspects.
Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn granted the motion and ordered Syed to be released from prison. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby later announced that she was dropping the charges after receiving the results of new DNA testing.
In an almost 60-page court document, Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams outlined her office’s concerns about the process as she defended why it should not be disqualified from representing the state in an appeal in the case.
Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, filed a notice of appeal on the grounds that his family did not have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the hearing.
“The Attorney General has an interest in the integrity of the criminal justice system and the public’s trust in that system,” Williams wrote. “The Attorney General’s decision to call attention to the unorthodox and questionable conduct of Ms. Mosby and her office throughout the reinvestigation, vacatur, and dismissal of Mr. Syed’s convictions was in service of that interest and does not demonstrate a bias against Mr. Syed.”
Suter, an assistant public defender who serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, asserted in court documents that the office “prejudged this case” and “seeks to represent not the State of Maryland but itself before this Court.”
Syed, now 41, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment, and was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in Lee’s killing. He has always maintained his innocence.
At the time, Syed was 17. Lee, 18, was his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. Her body was discovered in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999.
His case received international attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial.” The HBO documentary series “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and the podcast “Undisclosed” also examined the matter.
First, Williams said, no one notified the office or any of the attorneys who worked on the prosecution about the investigation. “This is particularly striking given that the Office of the Attorney General handled the post-conviction petition and subsequent appeals,” she said.
Mosby’s office asserted that the state did not turn over a handwritten note from one of the original assistant state’s attorneys, Kevin Urick, in which he wrote that a person had provided information that one of the suspects stated, “He would make her [Ms. Lee] disappear. He would kill her.”
But Williams said no one in the state’s attorney’s office spoke with Urick and stated that the note is “subject to multiple interpretations.”
Williams said the motion to throw out the conviction “selectively quoted” the document. The rest of the record, she said, suggests that the caller did not take that threat seriously and contains multiple statements consistent with the evidence introduced at trial against Syed.
Meanwhile, Mosby’s office reported that it had discovered a separate document that described how “a different person relayed information that can be viewed as a motive for that same suspect to harm the victim.” Williams stated that the attorney general’s office could not find any document that fits that description.
In a footnote, Williams wrote that her office “unequivocally rejects” Mosby’s “baseless allegations” that its attorneys intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence in the case. Williams said that’s a violation of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct and stated that it was reckless for Mosby to make that allegation “without offering a shred of evidence.”
The motion to throw out the conviction, Williams said, was “bereft of details about the alleged newly discovered evidence and the two alternate suspects.”
Williams brought up the speed at which the judge scheduled the hearing.
“In a jurisdiction where postponements for want of courtroom space or an available judge are commonplace, a hearing scheduled within three business days of the filing of a motion is extraordinary,” she said.
The court proceeding was “filled with irregularities,” which ranged from the state not introducing the notes at issue into evidence to the judge ordering sheriff’s deputies to unshackle Syed and allow him to walk out of the courtroom, Williams said.
The irregularities, she said, continued after the hearing.
Williams said the state’s attorney’s office repeatedly failed to treat the Lee family with dignity, respect and sensitivity. She said the attorney general’s office did not prejudge the appeal but concluded after a legal review that the state did not comply with laws related to the rights of crime victims in Maryland.
The only issue in the appeal, she said, is whether the way Mosby’s office treated the Lee family complied with Maryland law.
But Williams noted that Mosby’s decision to drop the charges against Syed “likely renders the appeal moot.”
In a statement, Suter noted that the attorney general’s office conceded that the appeal is likely moot but “then spends more than half of its pleading attempting to undermine Mr. Syed’s innocence.”
The attempt to defend misconduct, she said, is “troubling, but not surprising.”
Suter said prosecutors failing to turn over exculpatory evidence — and then defending and covering up those violations of discovery rules — are the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions. She said her client’s case is not novel or rare.
“What makes Mr. Syed’s case unique is its public platform, not the misconduct that resulted in his unjust conviction and 23 years of wrongful incarceration,” Suter said.
Mosby accused Attorney General Brian Frosh of mishandling the case and sitting on exculpatory evidence, stating that his “recent attempts to save face are a complete disservice to the family of Hae Min Lee and to Adnan Syed who was wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years.”
“We stand by our investigation and our ultimate finding that there is no credible evidence that Mr. Syed was involved in the death of Ms. Lee,” Mosby said in a statement. “Our investigation is extensive, and only a portion of our findings were outlined in the motion in order to present enough compelling evidence for the court to consider our request, without compromising the rest of this open and pending investigation.”
Frosh, she said, is “clearly biased and is in self-preservation mode.”
Mosby said her office “has always and will continue to treat the family of Hae Min Lee with respect” and outlined the ways in which prosecutors provided notification in the case.
Said Mosby: “In our pursuit of justice for their loved one, my office stands ready to talk to the family at any time.”