Adnan Syed, whose prolonged legal saga was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” is due in court Monday for a hearing to determine whether his murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee will be overturned.
The consequential court date follows Baltimore prosecutors’ request to overturn Syed’s conviction, citing an error by their predecessors two decades ago that they say prevented Syed from receiving a fair trial. Prosecutors said a new, yearlong investigation they conducted in conjunction with defense attorney Erica Suter revealed “alternative suspects” who were overlooked at the time.
Syed, 41, has maintained his innocence in the killing of his former Woodlawn High School sweetheart, Lee, who was 18. Lee was strangled to death and buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. Her body was discovered about a month after she disappeared on Jan. 13, 1999. Authorities at the time said they suspected Syed struggled with Lee in a car before killing her.
Twenty-three years of investigation, trials and numerous appeals have set the stage for Monday’s hearing. Podcasts, documentaries and books chronicled Lee’s shocking death and Syed’s fraught legal saga, with the case drawing an international audience.
Here’s what you need to know for Monday’s hearing before Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn.
The motion from the Office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby focused on two alternative suspects who prosecutors now say were prematurely overlooked by the authorities investigating Lee’s homicide. The court papers do not identify them or distinguish one’s actions from the other’s.
“The two suspects may be involved individually or may be involved together,” prosecutors wrote.
One suspect threatened to kill Lee, according to the motion. Prosecutors wrote that they discovered that information in the trial file of the original assistant state’s attorney, but that it was not disclosed to the defense. That’s a violation of law, and prosecutors now say the information could’ve been of paramount importance to Syed’s defense at trial.
Prosecutors say the joint investigation revealed the alternative suspects had documented records of violence toward women, including several convictions for crimes that occurred after Syed’s trial. One suspect was convicted of a series of rapes, according to court papers. One suspect was convicted of attacking a woman. One suspect was accused of forcibly confining a woman.
Prosecutors wrote that the joint investigation showed police cleared one of the suspects in Lee’s death based on faulty polygraph tests.
If Phinn overturns Syed’s conviction, she’ll have to consider an adjoining request from prosecutors to have him released from custody.
Syed’s public defender, Suter, who is the director of the Innocence Project clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, did not take a position on his release in his legal response in support of prosecutors’ request to vacate his conviction. If the issue comes up, Suter is expected to advocate for her client’s release.
Even if Phinn orders Syed freed, it’s not clear when he would be released. That’s in part because the hearing Monday afternoon is a relatively unusual legal proceeding.
In Baltimore, when a person who is held in jail pending trial is found not guilty of all charges, the judge usually orders their release. Oftentimes, the actual release happens many hours later or the next day, from the jail.
Syed, who is incarcerated at the Patuxent Institution, a state prison in Jessup, will be in court for the hearing, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said.
His family is also expected to attend.
Under Maryland law, victims have to be notified of this type of hearing in advance and have the right to appear and be heard by a judge.
However, it’s not clear who among Lee’s family members, if anyone, will attend Monday’s hearing.
The speed at which Phinn scheduled the hearing — a Monday hearing ordered Friday afternoon — makes it harder for Lee’s immediate family to attend and to retain a lawyer if they wanted to intervene in the proceedings, Kurt Wolfgang, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, told The Baltimore Sun.
“That’s insane,” Wolfgang said of how fast Syed’s hearing was scheduled.
A spokesperson for the state’s attorney’s office, Zy Richardson, said the Lee family was notified of the hearing.
Young Lee, Hae’s brother, lives in California and has declined media requests in the days following prosecutors’ decision to ask a judge to throw out Syed’s conviction.
The one time the Lee’s relatives have spoken out since “Serial” was released was in a 2016 statement issued by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office in which they maintained their belief Syed is guilty.
“It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae,” the family said.
Maryland law does not specifically say how much notice a victim’s family needs before a hearing, but it is inferred that they should be given a “reasonable” amount of time to consider their options, Wolfgang said. It’s possible the family could ask Phinn to postpone the hearing.
Phinn earlier this year threw out a plea deal for arsonist Luther Trent after a lawyer for the victims intervened, saying they weren’t given an adequate chance to be heard in court. Phinn, who presides over the city’s Reception Court, which functions as air traffic control for criminal cases, acknowledged erring by not hearing from the victims before accepting Trent’s plea agreement.
Since then, she regularly checks before sentencing whether prosecutors have briefed victims about plea agreements and asks whether victims want to explain how the crime impacted their lives.
If Phinn vacates Syed’s conviction, he still faces the murder, kidnapping, robbery and other offenses he was charged with in 1999.
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Prosecutors wrote in the motion that Syed “at a minimum” deserves a new trial.
The state generally has to decide whether to go forward with a new trial or to drop the charges, according to the motion. That decision, prosecutors wrote, hinges on a reopened investigation into Lee’s death.
Baltimore Police said they are again looking into the high-profile homicide.
Experts told The Sun that investigating a decades-old killing requires considerable time and resources — more so than a recent homicide. Some questioned whether city police can sufficiently investigate the case, considering the persistent rate of violent crime: Baltimore is on pace to record more than 300 homicides for the eighth year in a row.
Capt. John Bollinger of the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office investigated homicides, including cold cases, for the last 13 years of an almost three-decade career with Maryland State Police.
“Not only do you have to discover all this evidence and put it in order and make it fit the scene, but then you have to go the extra steps of how you know this and how it happened … years ago. It’s all about the original case, what the original detectives did … years ago. ‘Yeah, we can verify this, they did this, and now this piece fits in now,’” Bollinger told The Sun.
“I used to say when I was working these cold cases, ‘I would take a fresh one any day,’” he continued. “It’s the most difficult job you could ever do.”