BALTIMORE (AP) — More than 70 wrongfully convicted people from across the country have expressed their support for Adnan Syed, whose protracted legal saga received widespread attention from the “Serial” podcast and has since pitted crime victims’ rights advocates against proponents of criminal justice reform.
In a brief filed Monday with Maryland’s highest court, the exonerees — who together have spent over 1220 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit — highlighted the devastating impacts of a flawed criminal justice system. They described looming hurdles they encountered upon release from prison, including barriers to employment, financial and housing insecurity, lost time with family, and severed social connections.
“All exonerees and their loved ones are also victims,” wrote attorneys with Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, where Syed has worked since his release from prison last year. “Adnan Syed should not be exposed to any further suffering by being denied the opportunity to move forward and live his life.”
Recent court filings present dueling notions of the decades-old murder case as it continues crawling through the appeal process. The case is currently pending before the Maryland Supreme Court, which will consider whether a lower court violated the rights of Young Lee, whose sister Hae Min Lee was killed in 1999. Syed, her high school ex-boyfriend, was convicted of murder the following year and sentenced to life in prison. He remained behind bars until last September, when a judge vacated his conviction because Baltimore prosecutors found flaws in the evidence against him.
The Lee family appealed that decision, asserting the rights of crime victims and seeking a redo of the proceeding that won Syed his freedom after 23 years in prison. The Appellate Court of Maryland largely affirmed their arguments, reinstated Syed’s conviction and called for a new vacatur hearing — a decision both parties have since appealed for different reasons.
The Maryland Supreme Court will consider their appeals during oral arguments Oct. 5.
Citing a state law that says victims must be treated with dignity and respect, attorneys for Young Lee claim he received insufficient notice about the vacatur hearing, which was scheduled on a Friday for the following Monday. He was unable to attend in person because he lives on the West Coast, though he was allowed to make a statement via video conference.
“The court ran roughshod over these rights in the parties’ apparent zeal to free Mr. Syed unimpeded,” Lee’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed Monday, part of the latest iterations of court papers as the case drags on.
In a supporting brief, lawyers with the National Crime Victim Law Institute cited “blatant disregard for the victim in this case,” though they also acknowledged the potential challenges of developing a legal definition of dignity.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Syed want the state’s highest court to reverse the appellate court decision that reinstated his conviction and ordered a redo of the vacatur hearing. Syed has remained free pending a resolution to the ongoing appeal proceedings, but he still faces the possibility of returning to prison in the future.
“The terrifying specter of reincarceration has hung over Mr. Syed’s head every day for the past ten months,” his attorneys wrote in a recent appellate brief.
They argued the Lee family did receive sufficient notice about the hearing and, furthermore, that their appeal was rendered moot when prosecutors decided not to recharge Syed after his conviction was vacated last year. They also argued that even if Young Lee’s rights were violated, he hasn’t demonstrated whether the alleged violation would have changed the outcome of the hearing.
Both parties appealed to the Maryland Supreme Court after the Appellate Court of Maryland mostly sided with the Lee family. In a 2-1 decision, the court found Young Lee received insufficient notice to attend the vacatur hearing in person. But the judges also said state law does not guarantee crime victims a “right to be heard” during the hearings — a decision that falls to the presiding judge. Allowing victims to present evidence or otherwise engage substantively would “result in a huge shift in practice,” the judges ruled.
Lee’s appeal asks the higher court to reconsider that piece of the ruling and to expand the role of victims during such proceedings. Experts say a shift toward victims’ rights could stymie reform efforts amid a growing movement within the American criminal justice system to acknowledge and correct past mistakes, including police misconduct and prosecutorial missteps.
In Syed’s case, Baltimore prosecutors started reviewing his 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. Many states have passed similar laws in recent years since the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life sentences for children convicted of serious crimes.
The prosecutors’ review uncovered numerous problems, including alternative suspects and unreliable evidence presented at trial. Instead of reconsidering his sentence, prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction entirely.
If his conviction is again vacated once the appeal is resolved, prosecutors could still seek new charges and potentially retry the case.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Annapolis contributed to this report.