Maryland Supreme Court weighs victims' rights in case of Adnan Syed from 'Serial' podcast

The case has been fraught with legal twists and divided court rulings for decades. And the oral arguments that took place Thursday before the Maryland Supreme Court were no exception.

Associated Press

Oct 6, 2023, 7:16 PM

Updated 234 days ago

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Maryland's highest court is considering whether the rights of a murder victim's family were violated when Adnan Syed 's conviction in the killing was vacated last fall, years after his case gained national attention through the hit podcast "Serial."
The case has been fraught with legal twists and divided court rulings for decades. And the oral arguments that took place Thursday before the Maryland Supreme Court were no exception.
Among the issues discussed was the extent to which Maryland crime victims have a right to participate in hearings where a conviction could be vacated. The panel of seven judges, who will release their ruling in the coming months, is also weighing whether to uphold a lower appellate court ruling that found in favor of the victim's family and reinstated Syed's 2000 murder conviction.
Ultimately, Syed's freedom hangs in the balance. While unlikely, he could eventually be sent back to prison for life if subsequent developments in the case don't fall in his favor.
Outside the Annapolis courthouse after the hearing, Syed said he was looking forward to the 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 mother 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 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 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 video call.
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.
Syed's lawyer, Erica Suter, said the state met its obligation in allowing Young Lee to participate in the hearing.
Syed's attorneys say the family's appeal is moot because prosecutors decided not to charge him again after his conviction was vacated. And even if Young Lee's rights were violated, Syed's lawyers say, he hasn't demonstrated whether the alleged violation would have changed the hearing's outcome.
"Mr. Lee was heard, and his counsel was heard, and it did not influence Judge (Melissa) Phinn's decision," Suter said.
This isn't the first time the Maryland Supreme 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 justices 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. A lower court had ordered a retrial in 2016 on grounds that Syed's attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, didn't contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel. Gutierrez passed away in 2004.
In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision by Maryland's top court.
More recently, Baltimore prosecutors reexamined 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.


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