ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Supreme Court on Thursday scrutinized a hearing last year that vacated Adnan Syed’s murder conviction and released him after 23 years behind bars, as the victim’s family says they weren’t given adequate opportunity to take part in the proceeding.
Chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” the case has been fraught with legal twists and divided court rulings for decades. The oral arguments that took place Thursday before Maryland’s highest court were no exception.
Among the issues discussed were whether Syed’s 2000 murder conviction should remain reinstated after an appellate court decision in March and the extent to which Maryland crime victims have a right to participate in hearings on whether to vacate a conviction. Ultimately, Syed’s freedom hangs in the balance.
The panel of seven justices will release their ruling in the coming weeks or months.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Syed said he was looking forward to the court’s decision. While maintaining his innocence from the start, Syed has often expressed concern for the family of Hae Min Lee, his high school ex-girlfriend who was found strangled to death and buried in an unmarked grave in 1999.
“We believe very strongly in trying to find justice for Hae and her family,” he told reporters. “And we’re hoping also that we’re able to find justice for us, too.”
He attended the hearing flanked by family members, including his mom and younger brother.
Syed, 42, was released from prison in September 2022, when a Baltimore judge overturned his conviction. City prosecutors had dropped all charges after finding flaws in the evidence.
However, in March, the Appellate Court of Maryland ordered a redo of the hearing. The appellate court said the victim’s family didn’t receive adequate notice to attend the hearing in person, violating their right to be “treated with dignity and respect.”
The family of Hae Min Lee also appealed to the state’s highest court, contending that crime victims in Maryland have a right to be heard and challenge the evidence in hearings like the one last year that vacated Syed’s conviction from 2000.
“This case is not about Mr. Syed’s underlying innocence or guilt. That dispute is simply not in the room today,” said Ari Rubin, an attorney for the Lee family, during Thursday’s arguments.
He said the issue at hand was whether the rights of Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, were violated when a judge vacated Syed’s conviction without first conducting a substantive hearing where victims were allowed to challenge the evidence presented. The process of vacating a conviction is extraordinary “in that it aligns the interests of the defendant and the state,” Rubin said, arguing that victims and their attorneys should fulfill an adversarial role in such proceedings.
Depending on the outcome of the appeal, Syed faces at least the potential of being sent back to prison, a point his lawyers raised in recent court filings.
“The terrifying specter of reincarceration has hung over Mr. Syed’s head every day for the past ten months,” Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, wrote in a brief filed with the court in August.
The case could also have significant consequences for victims’ rights. Although the appellate court ruled that Lee’s brother didn’t get sufficient notice to attend the hearing that vacated Syed’s conviction, the court also said state law doesn’t guarantee crime victims a “right to be heard” during such hearings. That decision falls to the presiding judge. Allowing victims to present evidence or otherwise engage substantively would “result in a huge shift in practice,” the judges said.
During oral arguments Thursday, Suter told the court the state met its obligation in allowing Young Lee to participate in the hearing.
“Mr. Lee was heard, and his counsel was heard, and it did not influence Judge Phinn’s decision,” Suter said.
Syed’s attorneys have also argued that the family’s appeal is moot because prosecutors decided not to charge Syed again after his conviction was vacated. And even Young Lee’s rights were violated, he hasn’t demonstrated whether the alleged violation would have changed the hearing’s outcome, Syed’s lawyers allege.
Lee, who ended up speaking remotely at the vacatur hearing, was notified on a Friday afternoon that it would take place the following Monday. That was “insufficient time to reasonably allow Mr. Lee, who lived in California, to attend the hearing in person,” the appellate court ruled in March. Attorneys for the Lee family have criticized a lack of transparency as well in the court proceedings that led to Syed’s release.
“Hae Min Lee’s murder has been at issue in Maryland’s courts for nearly a generation,” David Sanford, an attorney for the family, wrote in a court filing last month. He argued the state Supreme Court should send the case to another judge to decide whether to vacate the conviction or not.
This isn’t the first time Maryland’s highest court has taken up Syed’s protracted legal odyssey.
In 2019, a divided court ruled 4-3 to deny Syed a new trial. While the court agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. That ruling came after a lower court ordered a retrial in 2016 on grounds that Syed’s attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.
In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision by Maryland’s top court.
More recently, Baltimore prosecutors re-examined Syed’s files under a Maryland law targeting so-called “juvenile lifers” because he was 17 when Hae Min Lee was found strangled to death and buried in a makeshift grave. Prosecutors uncovered numerous problems, including alternative suspects and the unreliable evidence presented at trial. Instead of reconsidering his sentence, prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction entirely, leading to his release last year.