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 in Annapolis before Maryland’s highest court were no exception.
Among the issues discussed were whether Syed’s 2000 murder conviction should remain reinstated after a recent appellate court decision, 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 justices’ 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.”
Syed has appealed his conviction’s reinstatement, and the Lee family also appealed to the state’s highest court, contending that crime victims should be given a larger role in the process of vacating a conviction.
“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 Lee’s brother, Young Lee, were violated because he was unable to substantively participate in the process, which Rubin called extraordinary “in that it aligns the interests of the defendant and the state.” He argued victims and their attorneys should fulfill an adversarial role.
But several justices expressed skepticism about whether state law expressly spells out a victim’s right to be heard in such hearings where a conviction is vacated.
“Why isn’t this a question for the General Assembly? The right that you’re speaking of is not in the plain language of the statute,” said Judge Brynja Booth.
Some justices also questioned why the hearing that vacated Syed’s conviction was scheduled so hastily. Prosecutors told Young Lee about the hearing on a Friday and scheduled it for the following Monday, leaving him no reasonable opportunity to travel to Baltimore from his California home and attend in person. Instead, he ended up addressing the court via Zoom.
Justice Shirley Watts said the outcome of the hearing seemed predetermined, including Syed’s immediate release from custody. And Justice Lynne Battaglia spoke about properly balancing the rights of victims and defendants.
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.
During oral arguments Thursday, Suter told the court the state met its obligation in allowing Young Lee to participate in the vacatur hearing.
“Mr. Lee was heard, and his counsel was heard, and it did not influence Judge (Melissa) 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 if 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.
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’s body was found. 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.