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Adnan Syed goes before Maryland Supreme Court facing 'specter of reincarceration,' his lawyers say

Adnan Syed, center, leaves the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. A judge has ordered the release of Syed after overturning his conviction for a 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial.” (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Brian Witte/AP
Adnan Syed, center, leaves the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. A judge has ordered the release of Syed after overturning his conviction for a 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial.” (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Attorneys for Adnan Syed, who is now free after being imprisoned more than two decades ago for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, will once again be arguing to keep his freedom in a case known to millions by the true-crime podcast “Serial.”

In a case fraught with legal twists and divided court rulings, arguments are set to begin Thursday in Maryland's Supreme Court. Syed's attorneys are appealing the reinstatement of his murder conviction by an appellate court, in a case that has broader ramifications for victims' rights as well as Syed's future.

Syed, 42, was released from prison in September 2022, when a Baltimore judge overturned his conviction. City prosecutors had dropped all charges after finding flaws in the evidence.

However, in March, the Appellate Court of Maryland ordered a redo of the hearing that enabled Syed to walk out a free man. The appellate court said the victim’s family didn’t receive adequate notice to attend the hearing in person, violating their right to be “treated with dignity and respect.”

The family of Hae Min Lee also is appealing to the state's highest court, contending that crime victims in Maryland have a right to be heard and challenge the evidence in hearings like the one last year that vacated Syed’s conviction from 2000.

He faces at least the potential of being sent back to prison, a point his lawyers raised in court filings.

“The terrifying specter of reincarceration has hung over Mr. Syed’s head every day for the past ten months,” Syed's lawyer, Erica Suter, wrote in a brief filed with the court in August.

The case could have consequences for victims' rights. Although the appellate court ruled that Lee’s brother didn’t get sufficient notice to attend the hearing that vacated Syed's conviction, the court also said state law doesn’t guarantee crime victims a “right to be heard” during the hearings. That decision falls to the presiding judge. Allowing victims to present evidence or otherwise engage substantively would “result in a huge shift in practice,” the judges said.

The Maryland Supreme Court isn’t expected to issue a ruling on Thursday. A written ruling will be filed on the court’s website, although it’s unclear when.

Syed's attorneys say the Lee family did have sufficient notice about the hearing. They also argue that the family's appeal is moot, because prosecutors decided not to charge Syed again after his conviction was vacated. His attorneys contend that even if the rights of Lee's brother, Young Lee, were violated, he hasn’t demonstrated whether the alleged violation would have changed the hearing's outcome.

Lee, who ended up speaking remotely at the hearing, was notified on a Friday afternoon that it would take place the following Monday. That was “insufficient time to reasonably allow Mr. Lee, who lived in California, to attend the hearing in person,” the appellate court ruled. Attorneys for Lee's family have criticized a lack of transparency as well in the court proceedings that led to Syed's release.

“Hae Min Lee’s murder has been at issue in Maryland’s courts for nearly a generation,” David Sanford, an attorney for the family, wrote in a court filing last month. He argued the state Supreme Court should send the case to another judge to decide whether to vacate the conviction or not.

This isn't the first time Maryland’s highest court has taken up Syed’s protracted legal odyssey.

In 2019, a divided court ruled 4-3 to deny Syed a new trial. While the court agreed with a lower court that Syed’s legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. That ruling came after a lower court ordered a retrial in 2016 on grounds that Syed’s attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn’t contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel.

In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision by Maryland’s top court.

More recently, Baltimore prosecutors went over Syed’s files under a Maryland law targeting so-called “juvenile lifers” because he was 17 when Hae Min Lee was found strangled to death and buried in a makeshift grave.

Prosecutors uncovered numerous problems, including alternative suspects and the unreliable evidence of cellphone tower data presented at trial. Instead of reconsidering his sentence, prosecutors filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction entirely.