Adnan Syed asks Md. Supreme Court to review decision that reinstated his murder conviction

Madeleine O'Neill//May 24, 2023

Adnan Syed, center right, leaves the courthouse after a hearing on Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. Syed, who was released from a Maryland prison this year after his case was the focus of the true-crime podcast “Serial,” has been hired by Georgetown University as a program associate for the university's Prisons and Justice Initiative, the university said. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

Adnan Syed, center right, leaves the courthouse after a hearing on Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. Syed, who was released from a Maryland prison this year after his case was the focus of the true-crime podcast “Serial,” has been hired by Georgetown University as a program associate for the university's Prisons and Justice Initiative, the university said. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

Adnan Syed asks Md. Supreme Court to review decision that reinstated his murder conviction

By Madeleine O'Neill

//May 24, 2023

Adnan Syed is asking Maryland’s highest court to weigh in on whether the rights of crime victims can supersede prosecutors’ decision to vacate a conviction, the latest step in a protracted legal battle over his 1999 murder case.

UPDATE: Syed’s murder conviction on hold for now, as Maryland Supreme Court considers appeal

Syed’s conviction in the killing of his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, has followed a twisting path in the past year. Prosecutors vacated the conviction at a hearing in September, but the Maryland Appellate Court reinstated it in March, finding that Lee’s family had the right to attend the September hearing.

On Wednesday, Syed filed a petition asking the Maryland Supreme Court to take up the case and end the state of legal limbo created by the lower court’s decision.

Syed also asked the high court to stay the Appellate Court’s ruling and keep him out of prison while the appeal is pending. Lee’s family and the Maryland Attorney General’s Office agreed to the request.

“Adnan’s innocence is not at issue, but his rights as a defendant and freedom as an exoneree are directly impacted by the Appellate Court of Maryland’s decision,” said Erica Suter, an assistant public defender who is representing Syed.

The Lee family said in a statement that the lower court’s decision “recognized that victims in the state of Maryland have rights.”

“We are confident that the Maryland Supreme Court will also recognize those rights and hold that victims may not only receive notice of and attend a vacatur hearing, but also meaningfully participate in that hearing,” said David Sanford, the lawyer for the family and chairman of the law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Syed walked free in September after prosecutors asked to vacate his conviction, citing newly discovered evidence of a potential alternative suspect and other flaws in the trial evidence.

Syed always maintained his innocence in Lee’s death. Lee, 18, went missing on Jan. 13, 1999, and her body was found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park a few weeks later. Police accused Syed, who was 17 at the time, of strangling her to death. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Baltimore prosecutors took a fresh look at the case in 2021, ultimately concluding that the evidence did not support Syed’s guilt.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office asked to vacate his conviction in a request that centered on two handwritten notes said to reveal an alternative suspect who had reportedly said he would kill Hae Min Lee.

Those documents were never turned over to the defense, prosecutors said, creating a Brady violation that raised questions about the legitimacy of Syed’s conviction in Lee’s murder.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn agreed to vacate Syed’s conviction at the hearing in September. But Lee’s brother, Young Lee, asked to put the hearing on hold so that he could fly in from California and attend in person.

Phinn denied that request and allowed Lee to address her via Zoom.

Lee appealed, arguing that his rights as a crime victim had been violated because he received too little notice of the hearing and was not informed he had the right to attend in person.

The Maryland Appellate Court agreed and reinstated Syed’s conviction. A divided three-judge panel found that Maryland’s victim’s rights laws entitle crime victims or their representatives to attend in person when there will be a hearing on a motion to vacate a conviction, though they do not have the right to speak at the hearing.

Suter asked the Maryland Supreme Court to review the decision because it involves multiple issues of first impression.

“The Appellate Court’s resolution of those issues, if left to stand, will result in the reinstatement of Mr. Syed’s convictions and sentences when Mr. Syed, the State, and the circuit court agreed that his convictions lack integrity and should be vacated,” she wrote. “However, how the issues are resolved will impact a much broader category of cases.”

The petition asks the high court to consider whether the appeal is moot because prosecutors dismissed the charges against Syed after vacating his conviction. (Then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby entered a nolle prosequi after new testing eliminated Syed as a contributor to DNA recovered from Hae Min Lee’s shoes.)

Syed is also asking the Supreme Court to find that Zoom attendance fulfills a crime victim’s right to attend a hearing, that Lee’s brother received adequate notice of the September hearing and that his absence from the hearing did not prejudice him.

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