Toward the end of his argument to a Maryland appeals court, Steve Kelly, an attorney for the family of Hae Min Lee, asked the panel to order a redo of a hearing during which a judge threw out the conviction of Adnan Syed, who served 23 years in prison for her killing.
“What would happen to Mr. Syed in your scenario?” Judge Stuart R. Berger asked.
Kelly demurred a bit, remarking that it would be up to the state. So Berger came back with a more direct question: Was Kelly asking the appeals court to reinstate Syed’s conviction?
“Pending the outcome of that hearing,” Kelly replied, “yes.”
The Appellate Court of Maryland heard oral argument on Thursday in an appeal from Lee’s brother, Young, who contends that he was not provided adequate notice of a meaningful opportunity to participate in a hearing in which a judge threw out Syed’s conviction in the death of his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School. The case received worldwide attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial,” which inspired a generation of at-home detectives and sparked a true-crime phenomenon that continues to this day.
The panel of three judges — which also included Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells and Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff — listened to legal argument and posed a number of questions for about one hour. It’s unclear when the court will issue a decision.
In the beginning of his argument, David Sanford, an attorney for the Lee family, stated that victims of crime are entitled to be treated with respect, dignity and sensitivity during at all stages of the court process under the Maryland Declaration of Rights.
The judge and the state, he said, failed to do so at least 10 times at three separate hearings.
Sanford argued that his client had the right to attend the hearing in-person, speak and present evidence, call witnesses and challenge information that prosecutors put forward in court.
“We’re here today in large part because the system failed, and the failure has to do in part because there wasn’t someone in a position to serve as an adversary, someone to at least raise questions and comment on the evidence,” Sanford said.
The judges repeatedly questioned attorneys for the Lee family whether they could cite any provisions or cases that supported their positions.
Daniel Jawor, chief of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division, said he agreed that the hearing during which a judge vacated Syed’s conviction was defective and called for a redo.
Meanwhile, Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, asked the panel to throw out the appeal.
“This court should dismiss the appeal as moot because there is not a criminal case for which this court could remand,” she said.
Syed, now 41, was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
Lee’s body was found in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999. She was 18.
From the beginning, Syed has maintained his innocence. He was 17 at the time.
In 2016, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch awarded Syed a new trial, finding that his previous attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel. But the Maryland Court of Appeals, then the name of the state’s highest court, reversed that determination in a 4-3 opinion in 2019 and restored his conviction.
Last year, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, citing the results of an almost one-year investigation that revealed that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence and discovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn later granted the motion and released him from prison, announcing in the courtroom, “Remove the shackles from Mr. Syed, please.” Prosecutors had 30 days to either schedule a new date for trial or drop the charges.
Lee’s family filed a notice of appeal, contending that loved ones did not receive adequate notice or a meaningful opportunity to participate in the court proceedings.
Young Lee lives in California and asked to postpone the hearing for one week so he could attend in person. Phinn denied that request, but allowed him to give a victim impact statement over Zoom.
Lawyers for the Lee family and the Maryland Office of the Attorney General asked the courts to put the case on hold while the appeal played out. But Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby then dropped the charges, citing the results of new DNA testing on several items that excluded Syed as a contributor.
The Appellate Court of Maryland allowed the appeal to move forward.
The Innocence Project, Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Syed.
Georgetown University has since hired Syed to work in the Prisons and Justice Initiative, a program that educates prisoners and teaches them about business and law after their release.
Syed and members of his family attended oral argument. Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue and Doug Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who represented Syed at his bail hearings, were among those who watched the court proceeding in Annapolis.
In brief remarks, Syed noted that his family has suffered and it seems to go unnoticed.
“We definitely understand that Hae’s family has suffered so much. And they continue to suffer,” Syed told WJZ-TV, a media partner of The Baltimore Banner. “Just like we suffer, too.”
Meanwhile, Young Lee observed the hearing from the opposite side of the courtroom. He left without speaking to reporters and climbed into an awaiting SUV.
Outside the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building, Sanford spoke to the press and reiterated that the Lee family is requesting a hearing during which a judge would hear from witnesses, consider evidence and make findings of fact and conclusions of law “so that the entire world knows what the basis is for releasing Adnan Syed.”
“We take no position as to whether or not Adnan Syed is guilty or innocent,” Sanford said. “What we do take a position on is trying to substantiate the right so the victim and the victims’ family and have a process that’s filled with dignity and respect and sensitivity, which is required under the Maryland Constitution.”
Next, Suter made a statement, noting that it was her client’s first court date since his arrest 24 years ago as a free man.
Syed is an innocent man who has begun to rebuild his life, reunite with his family, start his career and serve as a mentor and role model, Suter said. His wrongful conviction, she said, devastated two families.
Suter expressed her sympathies for the Lee family.
“Adnan, his family, and I would like to thank the tens of thousands around the globe who heard his story and believe in him. Who believe in our system’s ability to correct its mistakes, even in hard cases. And who know that it’s time, it’s 23 years past time, to let Adnan Syed live his life as a free man,” Suter said. “All of us, together, we look forward to the court’s ruling.”
— Enterprise reporter Tim Prudente contributed reporting to this article.