Court weighs victims’ rights in Adnan Syed case chronicled in hit podcast Serial

Maryland Supreme Court has scrutinised a hearing last year that vacated Adnan Syed’s murder conviction and released him after 23 years behind bars, as the victim’s family said they were not given adequate opportunity to take part in the proceedings.

Chronicled in the hit podcast Serial, the case has been fraught with legal twists and divided court rulings for years. The oral arguments that took place on Thursday before Maryland’s highest court were no exception.

Among the issues discussed were whether Mr Syed’s 2000 murder conviction should be reinstated after an appellate court decision in March and the extent to which Maryland crime victims have a right to participate in hearings on whether to vacate a conviction. Ultimately, his 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, Mr Syed said he was looking forward to the court’s decision. While maintaining his innocence from the start, he 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.

Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed speaking to the media from his family home during a hearing last month (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/AP)

He attended the hearing flanked by family members, including his mother and younger brother.

Mr 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 new hearing. The court said the victim’s family did not receive adequate notice to attend the hearing in person, violating their right to be “treated with dignity and respect”.

The family also appealed to the state’s highest court, contending that crime victims in Maryland have a right to be heard and challenge evidence in hearings like the one last year that vacated Mr Syed’s conviction from 2000.

“This case is not about Mr Syed’s underlying innocence or guilt. That dispute is simply not in the room today,” said Ari Rubin, a lawyer for the Lee family, during Thursday’s arguments.

He said the issue was whether the rights of Hae Min Lee’s brother, Young Lee, were violated when a judge vacated Mr Syed’s conviction without conducting a substantive hearing where victims were allowed to challenge the evidence presented.

Lawyer David Sanford with Young Lee
Lawyer David Sanford with Young Lee (Susan Walsh/AP)

Depending on the outcome of the appeal, Mr Syed faces at least the potential of being sent back to prison, a point his lawyers raised in recent court filings.

“The terrifying spectre of reincarceration has hung over Mr Syed’s head every day for the past 10 months,” lawyer Erica Suter wrote in a brief filed with the court in August.

The case could also have significant consequences for victims’ rights. Although the appellate court ruled that Ms Lee’s brother did not get sufficient notice to attend the hearing that vacated Mr Syed’s conviction, the court also said state law does not guarantee crime victims a “right to be heard” during such hearings.

That decision falls to the presiding judge. Allowing victims to present evidence or otherwise engage substantively would “result in a huge shift in practice”, the judges said.

During oral arguments on Thursday, Ms Suter told the court the state met its obligation in allowing Young Lee to participate in the hearing.

“Mr Lee was heard, and his counsel was heard, and it did not influence Judge Phinn’s decision,” she said.

Mr Syed’s lawyers have also argued that 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, he has not demonstrated whether the alleged violation would have changed the hearing’s outcome, the lawyers say.

Mr Lee, who ended up speaking remotely at the vacatur hearing, was notified on a Friday afternoon that it would take place the following Monday. That was “insufficient time to reasonably allow Mr Lee, who lived in California, to attend the hearing in person”, the appellate court ruled in March.

Lawyers for the Lee family have criticised a lack of transparency as well in the court proceedings that led to Mr Syed’s release.

“Hae Min Lee’s murder has been at issue in Maryland’s courts for nearly a generation,” David Sanford, a lawyer for the family, wrote in a court filing last month. He argued the state Supreme Court should send the case to another judge to decide whether to vacate the conviction.

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