A Maryland appellate court on Tuesday reinstated the conviction of Adnan Syed, the man who spent over two decades behind bars for the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and whose murder case was featured in the landmark podcast “Serial.”
In a 2-1 ruling, the appellate court said the lower court had violated the rights of the victim’s brother, Young Lee, to attend a key September hearing when a judge vacated Syed’s conviction, leading to his release.
“Because the circuit court violated Mr. Lee’s right to notice of, and his right to attend, the hearing on the State’s motion to vacate … this Court has the power and obligation to remedy those violations, as long we can do so without violating Mr. Syed’s right to be free from double jeopardy,” the court’s opinion said.
“We remand for a new, legally compliant, and transparent hearing on the motion to vacate, where Mr. Lee is given notice of the hearing that is sufficient to allow him to attend in person, evidence supporting the motion to vacate is presented, and the court states its reasons in support of its decision,” it added.
The Lee family is “very pleased” with the ruling, their attorney Steve Kelly told “CNN This Morning” Wednesday.
“We think it really represents a step toward transparency and the rule of law. You can’t have a trial by podcast or a trial by publicity,” Kelly said, contending the proper judicial process was not followed when Syed’s conviction was tossed out.
“It’s in everyone’s interest, including Mr. Syed’s, to have all the evidence aired publicly,” Kelly said, adding later that the Lee family is “not vengeful.”
“We want the truth,” he said. “If Adnan Syed is not the guy, then we want him out.”
David Sanford, another Lee family attorney, similarly told CNN in a statement the family was “delighted” with the court’s decision and the order for a “transparent hearing where the evidence will be presented in open court.”
Syed’s attorney says he will remain a ‘free man’
Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, Syed’s attorney and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, said the appellate court reinstated the conviction “not because the Motion to Vacate was erroneous, but because Ms. Lee’s brother did not appear in person at the vacatur hearing.”
“We agree with the dissenting judge that the appeal is moot and that Mr. Lee’s attendance over Zoom was sufficient,” Suter said in a statement provided to CNN by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
“There is no basis for re-traumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon. For the time being, Adnan remains a free man,” the attorney said.
“We remain optimistic that justice will be done,” Suter added. “We intend to seek review in Maryland’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Maryland, and will continue to fight until Adnan’s convictions are fully vacated.”
The decision to vacate Syed’s conviction came nearly eight years after the podcast dug into the case and raised questions about the conviction and Syed’s legal representation.
In explaining her decision to vacate, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn cited material in the state investigation that was not properly turned over to defense attorneys, as well as the existence of two suspects who may have been improperly cleared as part of the investigation.
Why victim’s brother wanted a re-do of key hearing
Lee’s brother had requested a redo of that hearing, arguing in part he didn’t have enough notice to attend in person. Attorneys for Lee, who was able to watch September’s proceedings by Zoom, previously alleged in court documents that prosecutors and the circuit court that overturned Syed’s conviction had violated the brother’s rights.
That happened, they allege, by failing to give him adequate notice, withholding evidence from the family and not giving the brother a proper chance to be heard at the proceedings.
Sanford, the family’s attorney, told Maryland’s appellate court last month that the circuit court and prosecutors “failed repeatedly” ahead of September’s decision to vacate Syed’s conviction.
“The victim, or victim’s representative … has a right to be heard,” the attorney said.