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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Maryland Supreme Court to hear oral argument in appeals of Adnan Syed, victim’s family

By Alex Mann Baltimore Sun

Attorneys for Adnan Syed and the family of the woman he once was convicted of killing are slated to argue before Maryland’s highest court Thursday about whether his guilty findings in the decades-old case should be reinstated.

After two decades in prison, Syed walked free in September 2022 when a Baltimore judge, heeding the request of city prosecutors and defense lawyers, vacated his convictions and life sentence in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee. Baltimore’s top prosecutor at the time dismissed Syed’s charges within a month, but, by then, Lee’s family had given notice of a forthcoming appeal.

In March, the Appellate Court of Maryland, the state’s intermediate appeals court, reinstated Syed’s guilty findings and punishment. Both Syed and Lee’s family appealed the split ruling to differing effects, with Syed saying the Lee family’s appeal was voided when prosecutors dropped his charges and the Lees arguing that the appellate court didn’t go far enough for crime victims rights.

Syed was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment in 2000. His case rose to international renown when it was examined in the hit podcast “Serial.”

Each side’s argument Thursday before the Supreme Court of Maryland is unlikely to seem novel to anyone who’s closely followed the latest stages of the prolonged legal saga, but justices on the state’s top court can question the attorneys about their respective positions. Appellate judges peppered lawyers with questions during February’s oral arguments.

Unlike the appellate court, which hears and decides cases in three-judge panels, all seven justices on the state supreme court preside over appeals.

Absent from the bench, however, will be Chief Justice Matthew J. Fader, who recused himself from the appeals from Syed and the Lee family, according to court records. Sitting in for Fader will be Lynne A. Battaglia, who retired from the state’s top court, then called the Court of Appeals, in April 2016.

Maryland law says a judge “shall disqualify” themselves from cases where their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

The rules don’t require judges to state publicly their reasoning, but list several examples that could merit recusal, including if a judge “served in governmental employment, and in such capacity participated personally and substantially as an attorney or public official concerning the proceeding, or has publicly expressed in such capacity an opinion concerning the merits of the particular matter.”

Fader served in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General from 2012 until his appointment to what is now the appellate court in 2017. During that time, the attorney general’s office, which represents prosecutors on criminal appeals in Maryland, fought off appeals from Syed. The attorney general’s office generally sides with the Lee family in the current appellate matter.

While the legal questions are different, two of the justices who will decide the appeals presided over Syed’s case the last time it reached the state supreme court, in 2018.

At the time, Syed argued that his attorney at trial provided ineffective representation, preventing him from getting a fair hearing. In a 4-3 vote, the high court in 2019 overturned a lower court’s ruling in Syed’s favor, reinstating his convictions.

Justice Shirley M. Watts, a former Baltimore Circuit Court judge, joined the majority, but added a separate, concurring opinion. Justice Michele D. Hotten authored the dissenting opinion.

In numerous appellate briefs over the last year, lawyers for Syed, Lee’s family and the attorney general have dissected the proceedings that set Syed free and debated their merits.

Lee’s family members, who were represented by her brother, Young Lee, said they were blindsided last fall because the same officials who’d led them to believe for more than 20 years that the right person was held responsible for their loved one’s killing were now moving to set him free.

Hae Min Lee had been missing for several weeks when, in February 1999, a maintenance worker caught a glimpse of Lee’s body in a shallow grave while relieving himself in the woods of Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Homicide detectives soon focused their investigation on Syed, her ex-boyfriend, who was 17 at the time.

Prosecutors told the jury that Syed, a popular honors student at Woodlawn High School, strangled Lee during a struggle in her car because he couldn’t handle the breakup. After a mistrial in 1999, a jury found Syed guilty of murder and other charges in 2000. A judge sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison.

With Syed behind bars, courts rejected his repeated appeals. He caught a break in 2021, when his attorney reached out to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, asking prosecutors to support a request to have a judge reevaluate his punishment in light of a new state law allowing sentence modifications for people convicted of crimes as minors.

Prosecutors said their review of his case left them with questions about the integrity of Syed’s convictions and doubts about his guilt. They informed Young Lee of their decision to ask to overturn Syed’s convictions days before filing the motion in court.

Syed’s attorney and the prosecutor assigned to his case met with Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn in her chambers Sept. 16, 2022, a Friday. Phinn scheduled a hearing to rule on the motion for Sept. 19, the following Monday.

A California resident at the time, Young Lee spoke at the September hearing by video call. His attorneys said he wanted to be there in person, but didn’t have enough time to travel.

In Young Lee’s appeal, his attorneys said the court gave him inadequate notice of the hearing and that his participation by video call didn’t satisfy his right to attend. They also argued that a crime victim or their attorney should be allowed to challenge evidence and call or question witnesses in a circumstance where the prosecution and defense agree the defendant’s conviction should be thrown out.

Syed’s lawyers said prosecutors abided by the law in giving Lee notice, as the statute only says victims must be given “reasonable” notice of hearings, and that courts regularly find video attendance is equal to in-person attendance. They also noted that the law doesn’t allow crime victims to weigh in on legal determinations, and argued that Lee’s appeal was moot as soon as prosecutors dropped Syed’s charges.

Two of the panel’s three appeals judges who heard the case in the appellate court found Young Lee had a right to physically attend the hearing in Baltimore, but no right to speak at it. They ordered a do-over of the September hearing.

In his appeal to the state supreme court, Syed’s lawyers argued that the appellate court neglected to apply an important legal principle to their ruling. Known as the “harmless error doctrine,” the concept says that appellate courts should only overturn a trial court’s decision if the legal error would have changed the outcome of the case.

Syed’s lawyers argued that Phinn, the judge who overturned Syed’s conviction, wouldn’t have come to a different conclusion if Young Lee had been sitting silently in her courtroom, rather than speaking by video call from the West Coast.

Lee’s lawyers argued that the appellate court should have established that victims have the right to speak at hearings to vacate convictions.

In their latest brief, they added a new ask: that Phinn be removed from the case, saying her actions on Syed’s case “are sufficient to raise the appearance of partiality.”