Lawyers for the family of Hae Min Lee, the Baltimore high schooler whose slaying was profiled on the hit podcast “Serial,” asked appellate judges Thursday to reinstate a murder conviction against the man once blamed for her death.
A three-judge panel of the Appellate Court of Maryland heard arguments from both sides of the case involving Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 killing of his former girlfriend.
Syed was released from prison last year after prosecutors and a judge sided with his advocates, who have long claimed that his conviction was flawed.
Outside the courthouse in Annapolis, Syed described 24 years of "unnoticed" pain his family has endured.
“It’s just really hard for us. It’s hard for my dad. It’s hard for my mom," Syed, walking alongside loved ones, told reporters. "It’s hard for my younger brother. It seems like our family, we just always go unnoticed."
Syed said he sympathizes with Lee’s family, but he urged the court to side with him.
"We respect and we honor the fact that Hae’s family suffers so much, and we just wished that they could get the answers that they can have," Syed said. "We just hope that the court also recognizes that our family suffers, too.”
Friday notice of Monday hearing
Lee’s loved ones argued they were not properly notified about a Sept. 19 hearing that led to Syed’s release.
The victim’s brother Young Lee, who has acted as the immigrant family’s representative, said he was told by email only on Sept. 16 about the crucial hearing.
He said he could not make it to Maryland from California on such short notice.
“What would be the remedy that you would ask upon us if we were to agree with you?” Judge Stuart Berger asked during a dramatic crescendo of the hourlong proceeding. “What would happen to Mr. Syed in your scenario?”
“The case would have to be reinstated,” Lee’s attorney, Steve Kelly, responded.
“So you’re asking us to reinstate the conviction?” Berger asked.
“Yes, your honor, which I believe you have the right to do,” Kelly answered.
Courtroom rights of victims debated
Judges and lawyers fought about the legal requirements for a victim to participate in court proceedings.
While the right to actively participate in sentencing is clear, Lee's entitlement to play a role in Syed's vacation hearing appeared to be more ambiguous.
The Maryland attorney general's office backed the family's request.
Daniel Jawor, the chief of the Criminal Appeals Division, told judges that Lee would not have a role in an appeals court. But Lee should have been in Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn's courtroom when she vacated Syed's conviction Sept. 19, Jawor said.
"At the time of [an appeals court] hearing there is no action taken, unlike in the circuit court, where the decision is made at the hearing, where you have the opportunity to influence that decision in the moment," he told the court.
Erica Suter, an attorney for Syed, countered that Lee's family had no specific right under the law to play an active, in-person role in the hearing that led to her client's release.
“What the victim has is a right of information and a right to not be caught off-guard as to what is happening,” Suter told judges. “This is not an environment in which their impact should be influencing the court’s decision.”
Suter said the brother's getting such short notice, leading to his inability appear in person, did not blatantly violate any procedure.
Zoom should suffice, Syed lawyer says
"I think we would be in different circumstances if the state did not provide Mr. Lee a Zoom option. But we are in very different times now," Suter said.
"At this point, we do hearings on Zoom, we do them hybrid, we do them in person. There would be a different argument if the state did not take steps to facilitate his attendance, but they did."
Phinn vacated murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment convictions against Syed in the September hearing and ordered him released.
Syed was freed years after “Serial” chronicled his case and cast doubt on his role in Lee's killing.
Trial prosecutors did not properly turn over evidence that could have helped defense lawyers show someone else might have killed Lee, Syed's advocates have said.
The judges adjourned Thursday, taking the case under advisement. They did not issue an immediate decision.
Since he was released after 23 years behind bars, Syed has been hired by Georgetown University to work on prison reform.
Family of murder victims seeks privacy
Young Lee, the victim's brother, was in court Thursday but declined to speak to reporters.
The family has sought privacy since Hae Min Lee was killed, and Thursday was a particularly difficult day for her brother, Kelly said.
"It was tough just to be back here in Maryland, and to see Mr. Syed was difficult," Kelly said.
"The whole this was just very, very hard on him, emotionally draining and taxing."