A Maryland appeals court on Tuesday reinstated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the “Serial” podcast who was freed last year after he had spent 23 years fighting charges that he had killed his former high school girlfriend.
The Appellate Court of Maryland ruled that a trial court had violated the right of Young Lee, brother of Hae Min Lee, the victim, to have been notified of and to attend the hearing in September when a judge vacated Mr. Syed’s conviction.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the appeals court ordered the trial court to hold a new hearing on the motion to vacate Mr. Syed’s conviction that would give Mr. Lee enough notice to attend in person, unlike the previous hearing, which he joined via Zoom.
The decision does not mean that Mr. Syed must immediately return to prison because the appeals court issued a 60-day stay of its ruling to give both sides time to consider next steps, said David Sanford, one of Mr. Lee’s lawyers.
Mr. Sanford applauded the appeals court for agreeing with Mr. Lee that the trial court had violated his right to be given adequate notice of the hearing in September and to be physically present at the hearing.
“We are equally pleased that the Appellate Court is directing the lower court to conduct a transparent hearing where the evidence will be presented in open court and the court’s decision will be based on evidence for the world to see,” Mr. Sanford said in a statement.
Erica J. Suter, Mr. Syed’s lawyer, said she planned to appeal the decision to reinstate Mr. Syed’s conviction to the Supreme Court of Maryland, the state’s highest court.
“There is no basis for re-traumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon,” Ms. Suter said in a statement. “For the time being, Adnan remains a free man.”
She added that, “Ensuring justice for Hae Min Lee does not require injustice for Adnan.”
The Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, which had pushed to overturn Mr. Syed’s conviction, was reviewing the decision, according to a spokesman, James E. Bentley II.
“We must allow the appeals process to play itself out,’’ Mr. Bentley said in a statement. “Mr. Syed and his legal team may file for an appeal to the Maryland Supreme Court, and we must respect their rights to do so until those rights are either heard or that request is denied; we are in a holding pattern.”
Mr. Lee had argued that the trial court had given him only 30 minutes notice to race home, gather his thoughts without the input of his lawyer, and speak extemporaneously about his sister’s murder, with no information about the evidence supporting the state’s motion to overturn Mr. Syed’s conviction.
Mr. Lee had asked the trial court to postpone the hearing so he could attend in person, but Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court rejected his request. Mr. Lee then joined the hearing on Zoom after one of his lawyers called him at work.
“This is not a podcast for me,” Mr. Lee had said, voice wavering, when he addressed the court. “This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
After Mr. Lee spoke, Judge Phinn vacated Mr. Syed’s conviction, finding that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Mr. Syed at trial and discovered new evidence that could have affected the outcome of his case.
Mr. Syed had been serving a life sentence after he was convicted of strangling Ms. Lee, his high school friend and onetime girlfriend, whose body was found buried in a park in Baltimore in 1999. Mr. Syed had been convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment.
The appeals court found that Judge Phinn had denied Mr. Lee’s request to postpone the hearing in September, “despite there being no showing that it was necessary” to hold the hearing that day.
Maryland law provides victims with the right to prior notice of a hearing on a motion to vacate and the right to attend the hearing, the court 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,” the court wrote.