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Lee’s family seeks redo of Syed’s hearing, says victims’ rights violated

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 a young woman killed in 1999 has appealed a Baltimore judge’s order vacating the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who was imprisoned for decades for Hae Min Lee’s death.

In papers filed Friday with the Court of Special Appeals, Lee’s brother Young argued through counsel that the family’s constitutional and statutory rights as crime victims were violated when they were denied adequate opportunity to testify at the Sept. 19 hearing where Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby told the judge that newly found evidence cast doubt on Syed’s guilt.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn subsequently vacated the conviction.

In its appellate court filing, the family stated it seeks an evidentiary hearing at which they would have the opportunity to challenge the state’s evidence and witnesses and present their own.

“The state and circuit court violated Mr. Lee’s rights,” the family’s attorneys wrote to the Court of Special Appeals.

“The state’s attorney gave him less than one business-day’s notice of the relevant hearing,” the attorneys’ added. “Further, the circuit court admitted no evidence, sat no witnesses, and asked no questions about the basis for vacatur – instead reading a prepared opinion parroting the state’s arguments and ignoring Mr. Lee’s position on the merits.”

The attorney’s added that their appeal should not be denied as moot, as the issue of victims’ rights at vacatur hearings is likely to recur.

“Absent this court’s intervention, prosecutors could moot the most egregious victims’ rights violations by dismissing charges before the (victims’) appeal is heard,” the family’s attorneys wrote. “Accordingly, this court should remand this case for a hearing that complies with (the family’s) statutory and constitutional rights.”

The family is represented by attorneys Steven J. Kelly, David W. Sanford and Ari B. Rubin, of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLC’s offices in Baltimore, New York and Washington, respectively.

Mosby’s office did not immediately return a telephone message Friday seeking comment on the family’s Court of Special Appeals filing.

The state will have an opportunity to file a response to the intermediate appellate court.

Syed, whose case was examined in the popular true-crime podcast “Serial,” was serving a life sentence after being convicted of strangling 18-year-old Lee, whose body was found buried in a Baltimore park. Syed, 17 at the time, has always maintained he did not kill Lee, his ex-girlfriend.

Phinn’s order to release Syed and vacate his murder conviction came after Mosby told the judge that a lengthy investigation conducted with the defense had uncovered new evidence that could undermine the conviction.

During the hearing, Young Lee spoke via videoconference, saying he felt betrayed by prosecutors since he thought the case was settled.

“This is not a podcast for me. This is real life,” he said.

Prosecutor Becky Feldman told the judge at the hearing that she contacted Young Lee before the motion was filed, and went over the motion with him. A day before the hearing, Young Lee indicated by text message that he would attend virtually, Feldman said.

But that evening the Lee family hired Kelly, the Baltimore attorney, who filed a motion to postpone the hearing for seven days so Young Lee could attend in person.

Phinn denied that motion, but paused the hearing by more than 30 minutes so that Lee, who was at work, could join the call.

Kelly said at the time that prosecutors shut the family out of the legal process, calling it “inexcusable” and a violation of Maryland law. The family is interested in the truth and might have supported Syed’s release if they had understood the basis, he said.

“The family is disappointed with the way that they were treated. They’re disappointed with the process. They want more than anybody to have the person who killed Hae Min Lee brought to justice,” Kelly said. “If that is not Mr. Syed then they’re open to the possibility of anybody else who actually did it being prosecuted.”

Syed’s case captured the attention of millions in 2014 when the debut season of “Serial” focused on Lee’s killing and raised doubts about some of the evidence prosecutors had used.

The family’s appeal is docketed at the Court of Special Appeals as Young Lee, as victim’s representative v. State of Maryland, No. 1291 September Term 2022.