"Adnan's going to be hanging in balance for years": Freed "Serial" subject's case is not over

Adnan Syed advocate Rabia Chaudry details a Maryland court's "deeply troubling ruling" to reinstate his conviction

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 5, 2023 12:01PM (EDT)

Adnan Syed was released after his murder conviction was overturned, but this week the convictions against him were reinstated after a court said the judge in the case violated the rights of the victim's family. (Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Adnan Syed was released after his murder conviction was overturned, but this week the convictions against him were reinstated after a court said the judge in the case violated the rights of the victim's family. (Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Glowing pictures of Adnan Syed, his family and defense team leaving the courthouse in Baltimore filled the internet in September. For the past 23 years, Syed had been serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his classmate and ex-girlfriend. It felt like a storybook ending to the case that millions followed since the first season of the "Serial" podcast took the world by storm in 2014. It was a story that was most importantly, over. 

Since judge Melissa M. Phinn of the Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated the charges against Syed based on "lost confidence in the integrity of his convictions" (due to new DNA testing that concluded the potential involvement of "two alternative suspects"), Syed started working at Georgetown University, reconnected with his loved ones and was on the road to reentry.

That is why it was so surprising to hear that on March 28, the Appellate Court of Maryland ruled that the lower court violated the rights of Young Lee, Lee's brother, by not giving him enough time to appear in person for the hearing to vacate Syed's charges. It was especially confusing because Lee had not appeared in person at other hearings and would not be able to speak or change the outcome.

Attorney Rabia Chaudry, one of Syed's most vocal advocates and an attorney appearing on the "Serial" podcast, explained to me on "Salon Talks" why this peculiar new ruling leaves Syed's freedom hanging in balance and why it sets a dangerous precedent for innocence work. 

Chaudry released the 2019 HBO docuseries "The Case Against Adnan Syed," which further proclaimed his innocence by exposing that DNA tests did not reveal anyone else's DNA on Lee's body or her belongings. Continuous advocacy work and the international popularity "Serial" brought to the case led to the case being reviewed.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Rabia Chaudry here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about the new developments in Syed's case, how a failed system can fail again and what concerned citizens and podcast listeners can do to help. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rabia, welcome. Please let us know what's going on with Adnan.

Thanks so much for having me. When you're at the point where the state's attorney drops charges and there no longer are any charges pursuant to which you can reinstate a conviction, nobody could expect something like this to happen.

Just to explain to folks what happened on Sept. 19, 2022. There was a hearing held in the circuit court in Baltimore on a motion to vacate his conviction. [Former state's attorney for Baltimore] Marilyn Mosby, her office, the prosecutor brought a motion to the court and said, "We are here to move to vacate the conviction." At that hearing, the victim's family, the brother, was represented by an attorney, and they filed their own motion, and the motion was to postpone the hearing and say, "We need more time because we should have had enough notice to be able to be present for the hearing."

They had been told about the motion about a week prior, and the family lives in California. They did not appear for it. They were communicated with the entire week before the hearing, and they again told the state's attorney that they would be appearing via Zoom. They would not be appearing in person. But the day of the hearing, they said, "No, we want to appear in person." They filed this motion. The judge did not grant the motion, but what she said was, "We're going to recess the hearing and we're going to wait to give you enough time." The victim's brother was at work. "To give you enough enough time to get home and get on a Zoom call."

We waited that day in court for Lee Young, the brother, to get home, get on a Zoom call. He spent about 40 minutes giving his statement, and after that, the court ruled on the motion that the state's attorney brought and vacated a non-

"I am just scratching my head because that means they can undo the executive action of any state official period."

conviction and released him. Now, the motion that the family filed to postpone the hearing, because it was denied, they decided to appeal that denial to the intermediate appellate court in Maryland. And that's the court that just ruled that they're going to grant the motion and they're going to send the case back down to the circuit court to do the hearing all over again and give the family enough notice to come and be there in person. The problem is, they said, "We're going to reinstate the conviction." 

That's why we're confused.

That's the confusing part and that's the part that I literally haven't slept in two days thinking about. What they did was not only reinstate the conviction and say the hearing's got to be done over. They didn't touch the merits to the hearing. They didn't say that the judge made a wrong decision by granting the conviction to be vacated or there was anything wrong with the state's attorneys. They said, "This is just a pure technicality. The family has a right to be present." But here's what's interesting. They also said the family has a right to be present, but they don't have the right to be heard.

So you get to come to the hearing, just to be there to watch.

If I represented the family or victim's interests in any case in Maryland, I would be concerned by this ruling because I would say, "I want to protect the right for a family to be heard at a hearing like this versus a family to be physically present." That's a really problematic part of this. The bigger problem to me is the fact that they said, "Well, there aren't any charges because Marilyn Mosby dropped the charges." So what we're going to do is we're going to say, "That was a nullity, it never happened, we are nullifying her actions and . . ."

"No other exoneree in this country has gotten this kind of treatment."

How can they do that? How can they make a decision on the actions of a state executive on an issue that's not even before the court? This is completely outside of their authority. I don't think there's any legal authority for them to do this. I am just scratching my head because that means they can undo the executive action of any state official, period.

Just say, "It never happened." Now, these kinds of things, for example, people have asked, "Well, you've had the U.S. Supreme Court and other, and federal courts decide on whether or not, for example, the action of the Biden government or the Trump government was legal?" None of this is in regulation, it's not part of statutes. There's no regulation around it.

It is such a deeply troubling ruling for anybody doing post-conviction work or innocence work because you can work for decades, not just get a conviction overturned and get somebody released. Get the charges dropped, and a court can arbitrarily say, "No, we're just going to reinstate everything." It undoes everything the circuit court did. It undoes the investigation the state's attorney's office did for a year.

How much do you think the popularity of Adnan's case plays into what's happening right now?

I think it's played a big role in it, and it's one of those double-edged swords that we couldn't get movement on the case without all this attention. But all this attention has brought out everybody's egos. All the legal players in this case, the prosecutors, the judges, everybody's got this invested interest. Maryland is not a huge place. It's like everybody's got connections, they've got animosities. 

"They wanted him to die in prison."

Marilyn Mosby has had vendettas against her by people for years now. People are out to get and undo what Mosby's done just because it's Mosby. That's not fair to the defendant in the case. He's not the only person she's exonerated. Since then, Ivan Bates has been in office. Nobody else is getting this treatment. No other exoneree in this country has gotten this kind of treatment.

What people don't really understand on a greater level is that Adnan is also a victim. This man spent a huge chunk of his life incarcerated when he shouldn't have been.

Most of his life.

Most of his life in the place where he shouldn't have been, and still forced to deal with the trauma of all of this. The healing he had to go through when it comes to what actually happened — losing a friend and everything else that goes with that.

His family has been victimized. It's not just Hae Min Lee's family. Adnan's family has been victimized, his parents were so sick, the whole family fell apart. Adnan was 17 at the time and he spent 23 years in prison. He spent more time in prison than he did outside. And now that he's gotten out – a juvenile life sentence shouldn't be beyond 25 years anyways. They wanted him to die in prison. Even if you think he's guilty. What's mind-boggling to me is in September, the Baltimore Police has DNA evidence that they need to make an arrest in this case. Why isn't that investigation moving forward? I want to know what's happening on that front because I feel like with this case, that's what it's going to take to finally end the ordeal for Adnan, is that the actual killer has to be caught.

I have missed one hearing in 23 years in Adnan's case, one. And that was actually the hearing on this issue that took place in front of appeals. This is the only time I did not go to a hearing, and that's because my father just passed away and I've just really been just kind of struggling to keep it together myself. And in 23 years, I never missed a hearing, and the victim's family has never attended a hearing. That is the truth. Even if they're given a month's notice, I don't believe they're going to appear, I don't believe they're going to exercise the right that the court has just granted them. Why would they come in from California? So they can't even speak. That doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't make any sense at all.

Now our options are we do the hearing over just like the court says, or we appeal it to the next Appellate Court in Maryland. That's the court that reinstated his conviction in 2019. I don't think they care about the issues. If you read this opinion the first, it's like 87 pages. I feel like the first 60 pages are a recital of facts from the trial in '99 that are trying to convince anybody reading it that he's actually guilty.That's what it's about.

Anything that Marilyn Mosby raised in September advocating for his innocence, the court said, "Allegedly." They used that language over and over: allegedly. "Allegedly, there's a Brady violation, allegedly his constitutional right was violated." But not that they accept it as fact. We could appeal it, it could go up to the Maryland Court of Appeals, it could go up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in the end, Adnan's going to be hanging in the balance for years as we go up the appellate chain. What's easier, is just to do the hearing over. But what that means is that this ruling is precedent. We have set this really dangerous precedent.


Yeah. That can not only be used in Maryland, but can be used across the country by other courts to say, "Well, OK, you exonerated this guy, we're going to reconvict him." It's insane.

"It is such a deeply troubling ruling for anybody doing post-conviction work or innocence work."

Marilyn Mosby is not the state's attorney anymore. If she was still the state's attorney, would this be going on?

I think so. But although what she could do is say, "OK, well if you said that me dropping the charges were a nullity, I'm just going to drop them again." Ivan Bates can do that, he could be like, "Well, I'm going to just drop them all over again." I don't know if he would make a move that . . . because his office has to deal with these courts and judges. Is he going to make a move that aggressive? Or is he going to be like, "Let's just do the hearing over and we're going to end up with the same result probably anyways, and just move on,"? I don't know.

What are the big next steps going to be? For you, for Adnan, for his entire legal team to combat this?

Adnan is so well represented. He has an incredible attorney, Erica Suter. She has been his counsel for the last four years, and she became the executive director of the Innocence Project in that duration. He's literally represented by Innocence Project right now. He has a great support team. We have great investigators. All the pieces are in place for him.

I told Adnan on the day the ruling came out, I said, "Keep living your life, don't worry about this. All the people that we need to take care of business are in place." He went to work the next day. He's fasting; it's Ramadan. He's just doing his thing, and he is sending me pictures. He's like, "I'm living my life like you said." And I said, "Good, live your life." And that's what he should do. We don't anticipate at all that Ivan Bates would make a move to actually re-arrest him and re-incarcerate him. The ruling also doesn't become a mandate for 60 days.

I think his team is going to make a final decision about whether we're going to appeal this or we're going to do the hearing over. I'm inclined to want to just get this over with and do the hearing over, but I do worry about the precedent and I don't know if there'd be another opportunity to challenge it. It would just kind of hang out there because I don't think this will ever happen again to another defendant. Can people just leave this poor man alone? He's in his 40s now. Give him the years he has left. Just leave him alone already.

How can supporters help?

I think people are outraged by this. I don't know if it would be helpful, but I think it could be helpful to contact the state's attorney's office and say, "Listen, this is outrageous, this is travesty, and we really hope to see that your office continues to support the exoneration of this man."

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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