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Family of Hae Min Lee seeks evidentiary hearing after ‘Serial’ murder conviction vacated

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

The family of Hae Min Lee wants more details about what led prosecutors to vacate Adnan Syed’s conviction in Lee’s 1999 slaying and is arguing their appeal over the issue is not moot.

In a response filed late Thursday night, the Lee family challenged Baltimore city prosecutors’ handling of the case under Maryland’s victims rights laws and asked for a more thorough evidentiary hearing.

The family also included an affidavit from the judge who handled Syed’s original trial in 2000, former Baltimore Chief Circuit Judge Wanda Heard, who supported the appeal and wrote that Syed’s conviction was “supported by substantial direct and circumstantial evidence.”

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office asked to vacate Syed’s conviction at a court hearing last month, citing newly discovered evidence of a potential alternative suspect and other flaws in the trial evidence.

But prosecutors gave little notice to the family of the murder victim, Hae Min Lee. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, sought to delay the hearing so that he could fly in from California to attend in person, but Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn denied his request and allowed him to give a statement over Zoom.

The Lee family quickly appealed, arguing that their rights under Maryland’s victim rights laws were violated.

In the month since, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby dropped the charges against Syed entirely, pointing to new testing that eliminated Syed as a contributor to DNA recovered from Lee’s shoes. Mosby said that the move mooted the Lee family’s appeal.

In Thursday’s filing, the Lee family’s lawyer, Steven J. Kelly, told the Court of Special Appeals that the appeal is not moot. And, he wrote, even if the appeal is moot, the appeals court should still consider the important question of how victims’ rights interact with a recent state law allowing prosecutors to seek a vacatur of an earlier conviction.

“The inherent conflicts between the vacatur statute and other victims’ rights provisions mean circuit courts will be left to improvise solutions with no statutory guidance,” Kelly wrote. “Such circumstances clearly require this court’s intervention.”

Kelly also pointed to the legislative history of the vacatur statute. The Maryland Judiciary and then-Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera opposed the bill in part because of questions about whether judges must grant crime victims the right to be heard, Kelly wrote.

The Lee family’s appeal does not relate to Syed’s guilt or innocence, and the family is not seeking to have Syed returned to prison. The question at the heart of their appeal is how much notice and information crime victims should receive when prosecutors ask to vacate a conviction.

The Court of Special Appeals may find the appeal moot because the charges against Syed have been dropped, meaning double jeopardy rules apply. Thursday’s filing argues that the Lee family is still entitled to more information from prosecutors about why they vacated the conviction and the evidence of alternative suspects.

Many questions have been raised about the evidence in the case. City prosecutors claimed to have found handwritten notes that identified an alternative suspect who had threatened Lee and were never turned over to the defense. When exculpatory evidence is kept from the defense, that is known as a Brady violation.

But the State’s Attorney’s Office has refused to release the notes, citing an ongoing investigation into Lee’s killing. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which handled criminal appeals in Syed’s case, denies that a Brady violation occurred and claims the handwritten note was selectively quoted in the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction and is “subject to multiple interpretations.”

The Attorney General’s Office, which sided with Lee’s family in their appeal, also questioned Mosby’s decision to drop the charges against Syed based on DNA testing on Lee’s shoes.

“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,” the office wrote in a filing this week.

Heard also wrote in her affidavit that the absence of touch DNA on Lee’s shoes “would seem to be an unusual basis to eliminate Mr. Syed as Ms. Lee’s killer.” The retired judge wrote that the other evidence against Syed was “overwhelming,” including the testimony of an eyewitness, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed bury Lee’s body in Leakin Park.

City prosecutors said last month that they had lost faith in Wilds’ testimony because of inconsistencies in his story.

Jurors also heard evidence that Syed had a motive to kill Lee, Heard wrote. The pair had been in an on-again-off-again relationship when Lee went missing 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 was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 23 years in prison for the murder before his release last month.

A spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender said the office’s court filing in response to the Lee family’s appeal will serve as its comment.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said in a statement that it stands by the investigation and conclusion that there is “no credible evidence that Mr. Syed was involved in the death of Ms. Lee.”

“Only a portion of our findings have been released publicly to protect the integrity of this open and pending investigation,” the statement said.