Adnan Syed case: Legal experts say reinstatement of conviction will have broader implications

When Baltimore prosecutors asked to vacate Adnan Syed's murder conviction and have him freed after 23 years behind bars, their request exemplified a growing movement within the American criminal justice system to acknowledge and correct past mistakes, including police misconduct and prosecutorial missteps.

But a Maryland appellate court ruling released Tuesday raises new questions about the rights of crime victims, whose role in such proceedings often comes in opposition to ongoing justice reform efforts. In interviews Wednesday, legal experts said the ruling could have serious implications in Maryland and beyond.

The Appellate Court of Maryland’s 2-1 decision reinstated Syed’s conviction, creating yet another unexpected wrinkle in the protracted legal odyssey chronicled in the hit podcast "Serial." The court ordered a redo of the September hearing that won Syed his release, finding that the victim’s family didn’t receive adequate notice to attend in person, which violated their right to be "treated with dignity and respect."

Syed will appeal the decision to the state’s highest court, his attorney said Tuesday. In the meantime, he will continue working at Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, a program that offers classes to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

"Will Adnan go back to prison? I don’t think so," his friend and advocate Rabia Chaudry told supporters on Instagram live Wednesday morning. "He’s living his life."

While crime victim advocates celebrated their victory, others warned the ruling could have a chilling effect on existing efforts to fight wrongful convictions and excessive sentences.

"The victims’ rights movement is a very powerful lobby that wants a reserve seat at the head of the criminal justice table," said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who represented Syed at his initial bail hearing decades ago. "This ruling certainly seems to satisfy their agenda."

David Jaros, faculty director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said defendants rarely succeed in getting prosecutors to reconsider a standing conviction.

"Adding additional hurdles is absolutely a legitimate concern," he said. "We need to create a balance between respect and sympathy for victims, on the one hand, and the very critical need for courts and prosecutors to revisit these cases."

Syed was 17 when his high school ex-girlfriend and classmate, Hae Min Lee, was found strangled to death and buried in a makeshift grave in 1999. He was arrested weeks later and ultimately convicted of murder. He received life in prison, plus 30 years.

At the direction of then-State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore prosecutors started reviewing Syed’s case under a Maryland law targeting so-called juvenile lifers. Many states have passed similar laws in recent years since the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life sentences for children convicted of serious crimes.

That review uncovered numerous problems, including alternative suspects and unreliable evidence presented at trial. Prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, giving him a chance at freedom after years of failed appeals and international media attention.

A Baltimore judge quickly scheduled a hearing on the motion.

The victim’s brother, Young Lee, was notified on a Friday afternoon that the hearing would take place the following Monday. When the hearing started, an attorney representing the Lee family requested a one-week postponement so Young Lee could travel to Baltimore from his home in California. A judge denied the request but allowed him to address the court via Zoom.

The judge later declared Syed’s conviction vacated and ordered him unshackled inside the Baltimore courtroom. He descended the courthouse steps surrounded by beaming relatives and cheering fans. Prosecutors were given 30 days to decide whether to retry the case.

In the meantime, Young Lee’s attorney filed an appeal, saying the family received insufficient notice about the hearing.

While the appeal was pending — and eight days before the deadline — Mosby announced her decision to drop all charges against Syed, saying new DNA testing from Lee’s shoes excluded him as a suspect. She said the Lee family’s appeal was now moot because there were no underlying charges.

In its ruling Tuesday, the appellate court disagreed. The majority judges determined Mosby dropped the charges in an effort to thwart the appeal. They ordered Syed’s conviction reinstated but stayed their ruling for 60 days, delaying a determination on whether Syed returns to prison while the case proceeds.

Mosby, who left office in January after losing re-election, said the ruling "sets a dangerous precedent over a prosecutor’s ability to reverse an injustice."

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Stuart Berger said he considered the appeal moot after the charges were dropped. He also found Young Lee’s rights were not violated.

Berger said Maryland legislators should develop more specific victims’ rights requirements — including how much notice they should receive for conviction vacatur hearings — instead of leaving it to the courts to interpret a patchwork of existing statutes that don’t directly address the issue.

Attorneys for Young Lee applauded the ruling, which largely affirmed their arguments.

Paul Cassell, a victims’ rights lawyer and University of Utah law professor, similarly expressed approval.

"This decision is an important milestone, signaling that crime victims’ rights are becoming an enforceable part of our nation’s criminal justice architecture," he said. "It would add insult to criminal injury to extend victims only paper promises."

But Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project, said the ruling could jeopardize other wrongful conviction cases and hinder a growing reform movement, in part because of the media spotlight focused on Syed.

"This is a very unique situation on multiple fronts," she said. "For one celebrity case, many more are affected."

Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Annapolis contributed to this report.