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Court backs victim's family in Adnan Syed's 'Serial' case; reinstates murder conviction

MD: Adnan Syed murder conviction sentence reinstated
MD: Adnan Syed murder conviction sentence reinstated 00:58

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland appellate court on Tuesday reinstated Adnan Syed's murder conviction and ordered a new hearing in the case, marking the latest development in the protracted legal odyssey chronicled in the hit podcast "Serial."

Though Syed's conviction has been reinstated, he will not immediately be taken back into custody.

In a 2-1 decision released Tuesday, the Appellate Court of Maryland ruled a lower court failed to give sufficient notice to the victim's family when it scheduled the September hearing that vacated Syed's conviction and allowed him to regain his freedom after more than two decades behind bars.

The court's order does not go into effect for 60 days.

Adnan Sayed
Adnan Sayed served more than 20 years in prison before a judge vacated his conviction in a September hearing, leading to Syed's release.  Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun/Getty Images

Maryland law provides victims with the right to prior notice of such hearings, and that right was violated in the case of Hae Min Lee's brother, the appellate court ruled. Syed was convicted of killing Lee, his high school ex-girlfriend whose body was found in a makeshift grave after her disappearance in 1999.

Baltimore prosecutors moved to vacate Syed's conviction in September after they reviewed the case and found alternative suspects and unreliable evidence used at trial. The lower court then quickly scheduled a hearing on the state's motion to vacate.

Lee's brother, Young Lee, was notified on a Friday afternoon that the hearing would take place the following Monday. Giving him only one business day before the hearing was "insufficient time to reasonably allow Mr. Lee, who lived in California, to attend the hearing in person," instead requiring him to attend remotely, the appellate court ruled.

Young Lee attended the hearing via Zoom after the judge denied his request to postpone the proceedings one week to allow his in-person attendance.

The Lee family spent decades believing justice had been served, only to be treated as an afterthought when prosecutors decided their case was actually flawed from the beginning, their attorneys have argued. The appellate court largely agreed.

"Allowing a victim entitled to attend a court proceeding to attend in person, when the victim makes that request and all other persons involved in the hearing appear in person, is consistent with the constitutional requirement that victims be treated with dignity and respect," the court ruled.

After Syed's conviction was vacated, Baltimore prosecutors had 30 days to decide whether to retry him. They announced their decision to drop the charges eight days before the deadline was up — while an appeal from the Lee family was pending.

The appellate judges interrogated that timeline and concluded the state acted "with the purpose ... of preventing Mr. Lee from obtaining a ruling on the appeal," which Syed's attorneys later argued was moot because there were no underlying charges.

During oral arguments last month, the three-judge panel focused much of their questioning on whether the appeal should be considered moot.

"It makes all the difference in the world if the case is moot," Judge Stuart Berger said during the hearing.

The judges also considered whether crime victims or their representatives have a "right to be heard" at conviction vacatur hearings, as the Lee family asserted in their appeal. The judges said they were not persuaded by that argument, ruling victims do not have a right to substantive participation in such hearings. They said a ruling to the contrary would "result in a huge shift in practice."

The judges stated their obligation to correct the lower court's violations, "as long we can do so without violating Mr. Syed's right to be free from double jeopardy," meaning he would face prosecution twice for the same crime.

"We can do that, and accordingly, we vacate the circuit court's order vacating Mr. Syed's convictions, which results in the reinstatement of the original convictions and sentence," the ruling said.

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