Thanks to a rare plea brought directly by the family of Hae Min Lee, a Maryland appeals court has reinstated the conviction of her ex-boyfriend and true crime cause célèbre, Adnan Syed.
The new ruling is mainly procedural, meaning it likely won’t affect the ultimate outcome of Syed’s case, which is almost certainly still headed for a resolution in his favor.
It might, however, serve as a useful reminder to the court to prioritize victims’ rights — even in a case where it appears a wrongful conviction may have occurred.
To the average onlooker, it might have seemed as though Syed’s release from prison was a long time coming. The subject of the revolutionary first season of Serial finally had his conviction for the 1999 murder of Lee, his ex-girlfriend, vacated in September 2022. The push to vacate, which was spearheaded in part by the Baltimore prosecutor’s office, arose after a special case review uncovered new evidence, including two new suspects, that cast reasonable doubt on his trial and conviction. Prosecutors dropped all charges against Syed just days later.
However, the circumstances that led to Syed’s release were fairly unusual, coming only after years of exhausted appeals and, finally, a new case review that stemmed from a wider effort to bring desperately needed reform to Baltimore’s criminal justice system and sentencing procedures. The situation was so unusual, in fact, that it seems to have led to a pretty unusual exclusion: The victim’s family was given almost no time to prepare for the hearing.
Hae Min’s brother, Young Lee, who was acting as victim’s advocate, was only given one day’s notice to prepare for the hearing, which included arranging for travel to and from Baltimore. According to the appellate decision, the lower court originally assumed that Lee would be attending via a Zoom link — but Lee apparently only agreed to attend the hearing via Zoom as a last resort, since he’d had no time to prepare to attend in person.
“I’ve never heard of a victim’s family being contacted a day before,” former Brooklyn prosecutor Julie Rendelman told Vox. “We usually let them know way in advance if any issues are arising. They would have been following along in the process way before a hearing had taken place.”
Lee “wanted more time, because he wanted an opportunity to speak to his attorney and to have a better understanding of what the evidence was” supporting Syed’s innocence, she said. “But he couldn’t do that in a timely fashion, and so instead, last minute, he got on a Zoom call. So the question was whether that was sufficient notice.”
The court found that it was not. On Tuesday, March 28, the appellate panel, in a 2-1 decision, reversed the earlier decision to vacate, temporarily reinstating Syed’s conviction. The court stayed the new decision for 60 days, meaning it doesn’t take effect for another two months, in order to give the prosecution and the defense in Syed’s case time to adjust to the reinstated verdict.
Effectively, the stayed ruling keeps Syed from heading back to jail. Instead, it requires a redo of the original September hearing on the motion to vacate — a redo the appellate court found necessary so that the victim’s family could be present in person for the hearing.
Rendelman told Vox it’s rare for this type of appeal by a victim’s family to be brought forward, and rare for such a ruling to be granted. “At the same time,” she stressed, “it’s also rare [not to] provide the victim’s family with notice.”
“If a prosecutor did not reach out to the family letting them know way in advance that a hearing was coming down the pike in which the potential was that the individual who allegedly killed their loved one was going to get out of jail, that is preposterous.”
She pointed out that although the court’s motion is basically a technicality, it does raise questions about the role of technology in a modern criminal justice setting. “It’s interesting,” Rendelman said, “because we really are in a different time than we were three years ago, where Zoom has become an acceptable form of participating in a court proceeding.” The appellate court, however, noted that not only was Lee’s family given short notice, but all the other relevant parties were able to attend in person, which created an unfair situation.
“The exception here is that he didn’t want to be on Zoom and he wasn’t given any time to appear,” she said of Lee.
Still, the fact that the victim’s family brought the appeal directly to the state seems to be a sticking point for some in the criminal justice community. “This is a case in which the victims rights proponents are looking to expand the rights that they already have in our criminal justice system,” University of Maryland professor Doug Colbert, who was one of Syed’s original lawyers, told WMAR prior to a February hearing on the appeal. “They’re saying that a crime victim should have basically the same rights and role as a prosecuting attorney.” He described any ruling in favor of Lee’s family as “extraordinary.”
But Rendelman points out that Lee’s family isn’t actually asking for more power — just to exercise their right to be present. “They’re not asking for any control over the decision; they just want to be present for it, which is what they have a right to do. The law doesn’t require them to have a say in what happens. The law just requires them to be able to attend.
“Those who have issues with the ruling question whether the victims should have such a big say in what goes on in a criminal procedure. But those on the other side are quite victorious because their position is that victims’ rights should be respected, particularly in a case like this, where they’ve been living with the loss of a family member for 20 years and would like some transparency in how the hearing proceeds.”
Because the prosecution has already decided to drop all charges against Syed, it would be highly unlikely for anything to change the ultimate outcome of a new hearing to vacate his conviction. Indeed, it’s unlikely this hearing, as rare as it is, would even make the news had the families involved not been so high-profile.
“This wouldn’t have made the paper had it not been [related to] Adnan Syed,” Rendelman said. “No matter what the case is, each victim’s family deserves the same respect regardless.”