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Maryland AG questions integrity of process used to exonerate Adnan Syed

Maryland’s attorney general attacked the integrity of the process used to exonerate one of Maryland’s highest-profile defendants in a new filing Tuesday before a state appeals court.

The filing raises questions about the evidence that supported Baltimore prosecutors’ decision to vacate Adnan Syed’s conviction in the 1999 slaying of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. The case gained international recognition when it was examined in the hit podcast “Serial” in 2014.

City prosecutors repudiated Syed’s murder conviction last month, citing newly discovered handwritten notes that allegedly pointed to an alternative suspect who said he would kill Lee.

But in Tuesday’s filing, the Attorney General’s Office claims that the notes “are subject to multiple interpretations,” and that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office selectively quoted one of the notes, leaving out multiple statements that were consistent with the incriminating evidence against Syed.

The note also said that the caller who reported the threatening statement did not take the threat seriously, the Attorney General’s Office wrote.

The State’s Attorney’s Office also did not interview Kevin Urick, the prosecutor who wrote the notes, although they were “difficult to read because the handwriting is so poor,” according to Tuesday’s filing.

“It is hard to imagine how anyone could conduct a neutral and unbiased investigation without asking Mr. Urick for his recollections surrounding the notes or, at least, to interpret his own handwriting,” Assistant Attorney General Carrie Williams wrote.

The attorney general’s opposition will not change the outcome of Syed’s case. The Attorney General’s Office has no authority to reverse decisions made by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.

Tuesday’s filing is instead related to an appeal brought by Lee’s brother, Young Lee, over the way city prosecutors treated his family as they moved to vacate Syed’s conviction. The family received only a few days’ notice that prosecutors planned to reverse their long-held position that Syed was guilty in Lee’s killing.

The family’s appeal is also likely to be moot, as the Attorney General’s Office acknowledged in its filing, because Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dismissed the case against Syed earlier this month and declared him wrongfully convicted.

Without a pending case, it is unclear whether Lee’s family has any recourse under Maryland’s victims rights laws. The family has until Thursday to argue why the appeal isn’t moot.

But the filing is another public twist in an acrimonious dispute between Baltimore’s top prosecutor and Attorney General Brian Frosh. The handwritten notes at the center of Syed’s exoneration are also key to the disagreement between the two law enforcement agencies.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office again accused Frosh and his office of sitting on exculpatory evidence.

“His recent attempts to save face is (sic) a complete disservice to the family of Hae Min Lee and to Adnan Syed who was wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years,” the office said.

“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. Our investigation is extensive, and only a portion of our findings were outlined in the motion (to vacate Syed’s conviction) in order to present enough compelling evidence for the court to consider our request, without compromising the rest of this open and pending investigation.”

City prosecutors claimed last month that the notes were never turned over to the defense, an evidentiary breach known as a Brady violation. They also cited a series of other problems with the original evidence in Syed’s case, including unreliable cellphone location evidence and a flawed eyewitness.

The Attorney General’s Office has vehemently denied that a Brady violation took place, and says it cannot even find one of the documents prosecutors said was never turned over to the defense. The office also sought to make the handwritten notes public in response to a Public Information Act request, but Mosby objected, citing an ongoing investigation into Lee’s murder.

That investigation could block the release of the notes indefinitely. It is unclear whether prosecutors would be able to pursue a case against an alternative suspect in Lee’s murder, given the many questions about evidence in the case and Syed’s conviction in 2000.

Mosby declared this month that Syed was wrongfully convicted after he was excluded as a contributor to DNA evidence recovered from Lee’s shoes. The shoes had not been tested previously.

Tuesday’s filing from the Attorney General’s Office also questions Mosby’s decision to drop the charges.

“Ms. Mosby did not offer any evidence that the perpetrator handled Ms. Lee’s shoes or provide any other reason to believe that the absence of Mr. Syed’s DNA on Ms. Lee’s shoes exonerated him,” Williams wrote.

The Attorney General’s Office has continued to stand behind Syed’s conviction, though its legitimacy is not the issue on appeal. The latest filing includes a list of the evidence against Syed, including details that corroborate the story of the key eyewitness, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed bury Lee’s body and knew information about Lee’s murder that had not been made public yet.

Syed’s palm print was also recovered from the back cover of a map book found in Lee’s car after her death. A page of the map book that depicted Leakin Park, where Lee’s body was found, had been torn out of the book and found in the rear seat of Lee’s car.

Lee, 18, was last seen at Woodlawn High School on Jan. 13, 1999. Her body was found in Leakin Park several weeks later. Police said she was strangled to death and accused Syed, who had been in an on-again-off-again relationship with Lee. Syed spent 23 years in prison for the murder before his release last month.

In response to the Lee family’s appeal, Syed’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, sought to disqualify the Attorney General’s Office from representing the state because of the office’s public statements about the case.

The Attorney General’s Office argued in Tuesday’s filing that it should remain on the case if the appeal continues — though that possibility seems unlikely, given the office’s agreement that the appeal is probably moot.

In a statement, Suter pointed to the admission that the appeal is likely moot. She also noted that Brady violations are common in wrongful convictions.

“The family of Hae Min Lee has endured unimaginable suffering, which has only been compounded by the flagrant Brady violations in this case,” Suter said. “The effort to defend that misconduct is troubling, but not surprising.

Brady violations are 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.”