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Adnan Syed, Young Lee in Md. Supreme Court today

Adnan Syed outside Supreme Court of Maryland 2023
Young Lee at Md. Supreme Court 2023
Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-05 18:21:40-04

Oral arguments began at 10am in the Syed v. Lee case before the Maryland Supreme Court.

The decision from the judges could potentially send Syed back to prison, or free him from his murder conviction for good.

Syed was convicted in 2000 of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

MORE: FROM THE ARCHIVE: Original coverage of Hae Min Lee's disappearance and murder

The conviction was vacated, or thrown out, in September 2022, but Young Lee, Hae Min Lee's brother and the victim representative in the case, brought an appeal, arguing he hadn't been given enough notice to attend the hearing in person.

Young Lee attended the hearing by Zoom, and addressed the court.

Lee's lawyers also say, not only should Lee have been able to attend the hearing in person, he should have been able to participate, specifically to challenge evidence - evidence they say was kept hidden from them by the state, but was ultimately used to overturn Syed's conviction. The evidence, according to an affidavit filed by the State's Attorney's office, points to at least one alternate suspect that had "means, motive, and opportunity to kill Hae." That evidence was not turned over to the defense at the initial trial in 2000, which is against the law, and known as a Brady violation.

The evidence was shown to a judge during last year's hearing, and the judge decided to vacate Syed's conviction based on that evidence, among other flaws in the case. But Lee's team never saw it. The state argued the evidence was not disclosed to Lee's legal team or made public because it was part of an ongoing investigation. We know what at least part of the evidence is, as it was leaked to the medialast year, but it was not entered into an official court record.

“There is no situation in which you can actually make a decision based on secret evidence," said one of Lee's attorneys, David Sanford. "That goes against the entire notion of an open judiciary. When you are charged with a crime, you’re presumed to be innocent. When you’re convicted of a crime, you’re presumed to be guilty. In order to overturn a guilty verdict, it’s incumbent upon the state to present evidence openly.”

Sanford went on to say, “We know nothing about the ongoing investigation, and that’s part of the problem. The state has said there’s an ongoing investigation and for that reason they can’t tell us, and they can’t tell the public details. If there’s an ongoing investigation, then the right thing to do is to wait until the investigation is over to file its motion. It’s premature to file a motion to vacate [the conviction] while an investigation is ongoing.”

The Appellate Court agreed that Lee's rights were violated based on insufficient notice, but said he didn't have a protected right to speak or participate at the hearing. To remedy the error that Lee wasn't given enough notice to attend, they ordered Syed's conviction reinstated and a new hearing to be held.

RELATED: What lawyers are arguing about in the Syed v. Lee case

Syed's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to review the ruling, arguing that since the State had already dropped the charges, that the case was rendered moot. They also argue that even if it's not moot, it wouldn't have changed the outcome of the hearing if Lee had been physically in the courtroom.

Judges on the bench today questioned both Erica Suter, representing Adnan Syed, and Ari Rubin, representing Young Lee, on a lot of technical legal interpretations.

One of the specific issues raised has to do with the extent to which victims can participate in criminal proceedings in Maryland. There's not a history of victims being able to challenge or present evidence, for example. Victims are able to make victim impact statements during a sentencing, but victims have never been able to act as an advocate for their case during a hearing.

So, what makes this case different? That's what the justices asked Lee's attorneys today. Basically, his team argues that this case is unique, because the prosecution and the defense were on the same side - both were moving to erase Syed's conviction - leaving no one to advocate for Lee. They believe Lee should had the right to advocate for himself in that instance.

Rubin explained his position after the court adjourned, addressing the media: "In the initial proceeding, the state was playing that role [of the advocate]. As was discussed in the court today, you have a very unusual law here which align the interest of the state and the defense entirely. The state moves on the defendant’s behalf. The state acts as a zealot advocate for the defendant. The problem here was that the adversarial process that existed in the original trial was eliminated completely and 20 years of appellate law was thrown out in less than an hour. That’s why the victim’s role is so crucial."

The justices asked, why this matter was before the court, and not the legislature, because currently, "there is nothing in the statute that gives victims an adversarial seat at the table," said one justice. Essentially, the law might need to be changed to explicitly give victims more rights. Lee's team says, there's no need to change the law, because they believe it already allows for more active victim participation.

The hearing lasted a little more than an hour.

"Today was an important day for the state of Maryland, and in particular.. for victim's rights," said Sanford. "We do not take a position with regard to Adnan Syed's guilt or innocence."

"The Maryland Constitution provides that victims be treated with dignity and respect and sensitivity. Those rights were denied as well here," says Sanford.

"We are grateful to have had the opportunity to present our argument to the Supreme Court," said Suter following the proceeding. "This appeal is about whether Mr. Lee's rights were satisfied by his remote attendance at the vacatur hearing, and whether the State has the power to decide it no longer prosecute a case that it no longer believes in. Yet it is Adnan who’s liberty is at stake. The death of Hae Min Lee and the loss suffered by her family is unquestionably tragic. So too is the incalcuable loss that Adnan and his family have suffered when he spent over half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.”

MORE: "This is like bizzaro land criminal procedure"

We don't expect a decision from the Supreme Court for weeks, or months.

WMAR-2 News took an in-depth look into this case, how we got here, and the implications for the future in a special In Focus: The Hae Min Lee files, which you can watch in full here.