A Maryland appeals court reinstated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed for killing his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The majority determined a court violated the rights of the victim’s brother Young Lee to attend in-person the hearing on the state’s motion to vacate.
Syed does have some time before he must return to prison. The appeals court is staying their ruling for 60 days to give “the parties time to assess how to proceed in response to this Court’s decision.”
“Mr. Syed does not contend, for good reason, that vacating the order vacating his convictions would violate his right against double jeopardy,” Justice Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote in the majority holding. “As explained below, we conclude that returning this case for a new vacatur hearing does not violate Mr. Syed’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy.”
For example, neither the lower court’s decision to vacate the acquittal nor the state’s formal dropping of charges were acquittals for the purpose of double jeopardy.
According to the majority ruling, prosecutor Becky Feldman contacted Los Angeles resident Young Lee, on Sept. 12, 2022, to tell him the state was planning to file a motion to vacate. She told him there would be a hearing and she asked whether he would like to be told about it. Lee said yes.
“Ms. Feldman ‘did not ask, nor did he state that he would be present physically,’” Graeff wrote.
Feldman called Lee again the following day to discuss the motion briefly and emailed him a copy of it. Lee wrote back, saying he disagreed with their decision to vacate the conviction.
Prosecutors said that Syed was excluded from a DNA mixture on Hae Min Lee’s shoes. He spent more than two decades behind bars after a 2000 retrial.
The motion to vacate was filed on Sept. 14. It was only on Friday, Sept. 16, that Feldman emailed Young Lee that the court “just scheduled an in-person hearing” for Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, documents stated.
“It’s an in-person hearing, but I asked the court for permission for you and your family to watch the proceedings virtually (if you would like),” she wrote. “So, if you would like to watch, the link is below. Please let me know if anybody from your family will be joining the link, so I will make sure the court lets you into the virtual courtroom. . . . Please let me know if you have any questions.”
Lee did not reply, so Feldman texted him on Sept. 18 to make sure he knew about the hearing. He said he would attend through Zoom. But Lee on Sept. 19 also filed a motion to postpone that hearing on the state’s motion to vacate. He argued prosecutors failed to give him enough notice for the hearing.
“In support, Mr. Lee argued that permitting the hearing to occur as scheduled would violate the crime victims’ rights of the Lee family ‘in three critical respects,’” the ruling stated. “(1) the SAO failed to reasonably inform Mr. Lee of the State’s motion to vacate and the hearing on the motion; (2) Mr. Lee would be denied the right to be present and heard at the proceeding if the hearing moved forward as planned; and (3) Mr. Lee could not meaningfully participate in the hearing because the State’s Attorney failed to inform him of the facts supporting the motion to vacate.”
Lee ultimately attended through Zoom.
“I personally wanted to be there in person, but your honor, it’s – I’ve been living with this for 20 plus years and every day when I think it’s over, when I look and think it’s over or it’s ended, it’s over,” he said remotely, according to the ruling. “It always comes back. And it’s not just me, killing me and killing my mother and it’s really tough to just going through this again and again and again.”
In his dissent, Justice Stuart Berger argued that Maryland’s victims’ rights law was not violated in this instance.
“On the merits, I agree with the Majority’s analysis in Part VI of the Majority Opinion, in which the Majority held that Mr. Lee had no right to be heard at the vacatur hearing,” he wrote. “Where I part ways with the Majority on the merits, however, is with respect to the notice provided to Mr. Lee as well as his right to attend. In my view, the timing of the notice in relation to the hearing should not be considered in a vacuum, but rather, in the context of whether the notice was adequate to enable the victim or victim’s representative to attend. I would not find a violation of the victims’ rights statute in this unique case when Mr. Lee was notified — albeit one business day before the vacatur hearing — and ultimately attended the vacatur proceeding electronically.”
He reasoned that Lee did “attend” the hearing even though it was through Zoom.
“Accordingly, the court acknowledged that Zoom was a practical and serviceable method that courts had been using to allow remote participation in court proceedings,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the court provided Mr. Lee with both the attendance he was entitled to, and the judge exercised her discretion in affording him the opportunity to participate.”
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