Family of Hae Min Lee continues to fight for new hearing in the Adnan Syed case, citing dispute over a note that helped free him

The family of Hae Min Lee doubled down on its request for an appellate review of the decision to overturn Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, citing a public dispute over what the handwritten note that helped free him means.

Lee’s brother, Young Lee, is fighting to have a say in the process that freed Syed after the man made famous by the “Serial” podcast served more than two decades in prison for Hae Min Lee’s killing.

The appeal comes after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge threw out Syed’s conviction in September, and city prosecutors dismissed his charges in October. It has yielded pointed debate in court papers over how the proceedings played out and whether there was a legitimate reason to toss out Syed’s guilty verdict.

City prosecutors sought to have Syed’s conviction overturned in part because of a decades-old note discovered during their review of Syed’s case. They say that the messy, handwritten note linked another person to Lee’s death, but it was never given to Syed’s defense team. This kept him from getting a fair trial.

But Kevin Urick, who prosecuted Syed in 2000, and authored the note, believes city prosecutors misinterpreted its meaning. Weeks ago, Urick provided a typed transcription to the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, which represented the state for Syed’s repeated appeals. In a footnote to the transcription, Urick said that the threat to Lee that he wrote down more than 20 years ago was made by Syed, not by the other suspect who is now being blamed for it.

The confusion about the note “underscores the compelling importance of conducting a full evidentiary hearing — one that complies with the law,” wrote Young Lee’s attorney, Steve Kelly, in a court filing Wednesday.

In a statement, Kelly said an evidentiary hearing would help Lee’s family “understand why the man the state told them for 20 years murdered Hae was released in such a hasty and haphazard manner.”

Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, filed a response to Kelly’s filing on Thursday. In it, she argued that the court should not consider Kelly’s argument because it is not legal and that the appeal is pointless because Syed’s charges were dropped. She also questioned Urick’s interpretation of the note.

“It is not unusual that a prosecutor who has been found to have committed wrongdoing disputes the assessment of that conduct,” Suter wrote Thursday.

A Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman referred to a previous statement that said the office disputed Urick’s interpretation of the note, questioned his integrity, and stood by the approximately year-long reinvestigation of Syed’s case that led them to conclude he was innocent.

Urick has yet to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Kelly said in his filing Wednesday that city prosecutors never showed Young Lee the note before they met with Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn in her chambers on Friday, Sept. 16, and scheduled a hearing for the following Monday, Sept. 19. The note was not entered into evidence at the hearing where Phinn threw out Syed’s conviction.

Young Lee appealed on the grounds that he wasn’t given adequate notice for the hearing, which he attended via video call and gave a brief statement. He said he wanted to attend in person but couldn’t arrange travel from his home in California to Baltimore in two days. Young Lee said that the short notice was against the law in Maryland and went against his rights as a crime victim.

But while his appeal was going on, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told her prosecutors to drop the charges against Syed. She said that the last round of DNA testing done on evidence in Lee’s murder showed that Syed could not have been the person who contributed genetic material from her shoes.

The attorney general’s office filed papers supporting Young Lee’s appeal. They said that evidence was never kept from Syed’s defense team and pointed out the evidence that the jury used to find Syed guilty.

Since Syed’s charges no longer exist, the Court of Special Appeals told Young Lee to explain why his legal argument should go forward.

Kelly argued that the court should look at the appeal to make it clear how victims’ rights should be taken into account in the recently created process in Maryland to get convictions overturned. This would help ensure that similar problems don’t arise in the future.

His argument to the court also included an affidavit from retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard, who oversaw Syed’s trial and sentenced him to life in prison. In her affidavit Heard said that the jury’s guilty verdict was buoyed by “substantial direct and circumstantial evidence” and cast doubt on the significance of Syed being excluded as the source of DNA found on Lee’s shoes.

Suter asked the court on Monday to remove Heard’s affidavit from the court records. He did this by pointing to a state law that says a judge who presided over a trial can’t decide a person’s post-conviction claims. Post-conviction claims usually question the trial judge’s legal decisions. Suter wrote that as a result, the judge is likely to fight these claims and is perceived as biased.

“Her affidavit is nothing more than a highly inappropriate attempt by a former judicial officer to condemn Mr. Syed,” Suter wrote.

Suter also argued that Kelly was asking for a change in the law, not a clarification. It’s up to the legislature, not the courts, to codify crime victims’ rights in the conviction-vacating process, Suter said.

She urged the court to find that Young Lee’s appeal is moot.

The appeal effectively asks the court to bring back Syed’s conviction, Suter wrote in the filing Thursday. “But a court can’t change a conviction if there isn’t a pending criminal case in the circuit court,” the judge said. “Mr. Syed’s case was dropped by the State, so there is no longer a criminal case.”

A panel of three judges from the intermediate appellate court will decide if the appeal proceeds.

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