Young Lee delivered an emotional statement to a packed courtroom in Baltimore on Monday, describing how he has experienced a “never-ending nightmare” since the murder of his sister, Hae Min Lee, more than 20 years ago.
But Young Lee wasn’t in the courtroom, which was filled with more than 100 people. Instead, he was appearing via Zoom, from more than 2,600 miles away in Los Angeles.
His attorney, Steve Kelly, had unsuccessfully pleaded with Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn to postpone the proceedings for one week to give his client the opportunity to attend the hearing in person. And not long after Young Lee addressed the court via Zoom, Phinn granted a motion to throw out the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the man he believed for more than two decades was responsible for killing his sister.
Kelly said his client feels shocked, stunned and distraught the day after the hearing, which marked a sudden reversal in a case that received worldwide attention beginning with the 2014 release of the podcast “Serial.” He and other advocates believe that victims of crime deserve to be treated better in Maryland.
“I think it’s just clear to the family and to us, upon reflection, that this was a preordained event,” Kelly said on Tuesday.
Syed, now 41, was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.
Her body was found in a shallow grave in Leakin Park in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1999.
Last week, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, reporting that an almost one-year investigation with his attorney, Erica Suter, had revealed that the state did not turn over exculpatory evidence and had uncovered information about two possible alternative suspects.
Suter is an assistant public defender who serves as director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped short of declaring that Syed is innocent. Instead, she said she believes he was entitled to a new trial in the interest of fairness and justice.
Law enforcement is continuing to investigate. Prosecutors have 30 days to schedule a new trial date or drop the case.
During the hearing on Monday, Phinn questioned Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, about her efforts to notify the Lee family of the court proceedings.
Feldman said she spoke with Young Lee last week before filing the motion. She said she discussed the filing with him, provided him with a copy of the document and gave him her contact information, with the invitation to call, text or email at any time with questions.
Young Lee, she said, did not indicate to her that he wished to travel to attend the hearing.
When Feldman learned of the court date, she said, she emailed him and provided a Zoom link. She said she later texted him and confirmed that he received her message and that he planned to join the hearing remotely.
Though Phinn denied Kelly’s request to postpone the proceeding, she took a 30-minute recess to allow Young Lee to leave work to join the hearing via Zoom.
Phinn said she would’ve taken the appropriate steps if she knew Young Lee wanted to attend in person.
Kelly described his client as a layperson who did not know he had the right to meaningfully participate in the court proceedings. He said there was no reason the judge could not have granted the brief continuance.
For decades, Kelly said, the state maintained that Syed was responsible for the killing. Then, all of a sudden, that changed.
The Lee family, he said, are kind, caring people who do not want to see any injustice done in the name of their sister or daughter. Kelly described the hearing as a missed opportunity, because Lee’s loved ones might have agreed with the request to throw out Syed’s conviction if they had been given more time to understand the situation.
“This was a media moment for Marilyn Mosby, and the only people who were harmed was this family of this 17-year-old kid who was murdered in Baltimore City,” Kelly said. “And nobody really seems to care.”
Kelly said he will present the family with potential next steps, which could include filing a motion to reconsider or an appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Kurt Wolfgang, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves the rights of victims of crime in the state, said he is upset about what he feels was the lack of respect shown toward the Lee family.
Wolfgang said even if Lee’s loved ones lived in Baltimore, he believes it was not appropriate to schedule a hearing on a Friday for the following Monday.
Victims of crime have the right to be present at any hearing at which the defendant appears and to receive reasonable notice about the hearing, Wolfgang said. He said attending a court proceeding in person and remotely are not the same.
“Why did the court set a proceeding that someone had to come up with their position and their posture over the weekend? What was the great urgency?” said Wolfgang, who is not involved in the case. “Essentially, victims end up being an inconvenience to the court — and that’s the way we’re treated. It’s not supposed to be that way.”
In his emotional comments to the court, Young Lee said he felt blindsided and betrayed. He said he used to feel that the state was on his side.
He spoke about the pain that he and his family members have experienced having to relive the murder of their loved one. “This is not a podcast for me,” he said. “This is real life.”
“Your honor, I’ve been living with this for like 20-plus years,” he added. “And every day, when I think it’s over, whenever I think it’s over or it’s ended, it’s always come back.”
At the same time, Young Lee said, he had faith in the criminal justice system and trusted the judge to make the right decision.
When Young Lee finished speaking, Phinn told him she was “mindful of how difficult this day is for you.”
“I appreciate joining the Zoom this afternoon to make this statement,” Phinn said. “Because it is important to hear from the victim or the victim’s representative.”