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Hae Min Lee’s family asks court to put Syed case on hold as they appeal

Adnan Syed, 41, in white, leaves court on Sept. 19 after his conviction in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee was vacated. (Madeleine O’Neill/The Daily Record)

The family of Hae Min Lee is asking a Maryland court to put legal proceedings on hold while they appeal a Baltimore judge’s decision to vacate Adnan Syed’s conviction in Lee’s 1999 murder.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals to pause the 30-day window in which prosecutors have said they will either pursue a trial against Syed or dismiss his case entirely.

Lee’s family is raising claims under Maryland’s victim rights laws, which require that crime victims be treated with “dignity, respect, and sensitivity.”

The 30-day window to proceed with the charges against Syed is closing quickly, and city prosecutors have given little sense of what they will do. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said on Sept. 19, when Syed was released, that her office was waiting on DNA test results — but did not say what would happen if the results came back after the 30-day period.

Wednesday’s motion does not seek Syed’s return to prison, but asks to freeze the 30-day deadline while Lee’s family appeals.

“They just want to pause that so that the appellate court can take a hard look at it,” said Steven J. Kelly, the lawyer for Lee’s family. “If the appellate court finds that there was a problem with what happened below, it just becomes that much easier to deal with that if nothing else has happened in the case since then.”

Lee’s family claims that they were not given adequate notice of the Sept. 19 hearing where prosecutors and Syed’s defense lawyer asked to vacate his conviction. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, asked through Kelly to delay the hearing by seven days so that he could fly in from California to address the court in person.

Baltimore Circuit Judge  Melissa M. Phinn denied the request and allowed Young Lee to speak over Zoom. Lee said he found it unfair that prosecutors had suddenly withdrawn their support for Syed’s conviction after more than 20 years.

Syed was serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park. He was 17 at the time of her death.

City prosecutors asked to vacate Syed’s conviction last month because of a host of problems they had identified with the original case, including an alleged Brady violation, or an instance where prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.

The request centered on two handwritten documents that were said to reveal an alternative suspect who had reportedly said he would kill Lee. Prosecutors also said they had lost faith in the reliability of cellphone location data used in the case and a key eyewitness who told police Syed took him to Lee’s body.

“Despite months of investigation, the State did not notify the Lee family of its intent to move to vacate the judgment until Monday, September 12, 2022,” Kelly wrote in Wednesday’s motion. “Even then, the State did not disclose any details of its investigation or the identity of the two new suspects to the Lee family.”

The motion does not address the substance of the Lee family’s appeal, which will come later in a more detailed filing. Kelly said Wednesday evening he hopes to file that document as soon as possible.

Syed is represented by Assistant Maryland Public Defender Erica Suter. The Office of the Public Defender declined to comment on litigation related to Syed’s case.

Zy Richardson, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a previous statement that the office contacted Lee’s family before filing the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction to discuss the case and offer counseling services.

“As a prosecutor’s office with the only family bereavement center in the state with a full-time staff to serve families of homicide victims, we understand the incredible turmoil, despair, and re-victimization that occurs when a conviction is overturned,” Richardson said.

“We truly empathize with Hae Min Lee’s family, who believed they had resolution to the case and are now re-traumatized by the misdeeds of prior prosecutors.”