Gavel and handcuffs

Maryland Supreme Court Weighs Victims’ Rights in High-Profile Murder Case

Adnan Syed’s appeal raises questions about the scope of Maryland’s protections for victims’ rights.


On October 5, the Maryland Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether a hearing that prompted a Baltimore judge to throw out Adnan Syed’s murder conviction comported with victims’ rights protections under Maryland law. 

Syed, whose case gained notoriety through the true crime podcast Serial, spent 23 years in prison for the 1999 kidnapping and murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Last year, a trial court vacated his conviction following a motion filed by the prosecution, which pointed to prosecutorial misconduct and newly discovered evidence. The following month prosecutors dropped the charges against Syed, citing new DNA evidence. 

But in March 2023, the Appellate Court of Maryland reinstated Syed’s conviction based on an appeal by Lee’s brother, Young Lee, who cited victims’ rights protections under the Maryland Constitution and state law. The court held that while Lee did not have a right to be heard during the hearing to vacate Syed’s conviction, his right to attend in person had been violated — he participated via Zoom after receiving notice on Friday for a Monday hearing. The court ordered the trial court to hold a new hearing on the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

 On October 5, the Maryland Supreme Court will consider Syed’s appeal, as well as a cross-appeal by Lee arguing that Maryland law grants him a right to speak at the hearing. The high court’s ruling could help define the scope of rights afforded to crime victims under state statutes and the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, which requires that crime victims be treated with “dignity, respect, and sensitivity during all phases of the criminal justice process,” and offers victims the right “upon request and if practicable, to be notified of, to attend, and to be heard at a criminal justice proceeding.”

 Lee’s lawyers argue that because prosecutors were effectively acting on Syed’s behalf, neither party had an interest in challenging the vacating of the conviction, and the court provided no real oversight or explanation of its action. Lee, they say, had no meaningful opportunity to hear and question the newly discovered evidence. And since vacating the conviction was invalid, so was the prosecutors’ subsequent dropping of the charges, which Lee argues was done to avoid appellate review.

 One question the court will be considering is whether prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges against Syed after his conviction was vacated rendered Lee’s appeal moot. Syed’s lawyers argue that prosecutors alone have the authority to drop criminal charges, and once they do, a criminal matter is ended and any pending appeal is moot.

 Another question is the scope of Maryland’s victims’ rights protections, including whether Lee had a right to speak during the vacatur hearing. Lee’s lawyers argue that the state constitution and governing statute require victims to “be notified” and allowed “to attend,” and it also envisions victims playing a “meaningful role” when their interests are affected. A victim’s right to speak is “implicit” in the statute, as in their view, “a victim’s right to notice and attendance is only fully realized if it carries with it the right to speak and to address the evidence.” 

 The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, in a brief supporting Lee, likewise argues that the victim’s representative had a right to address the court at the hearing because it resulted in the alteration of Syed’s sentence. A Maryland Supreme Court ruling could clarify the issue, the state observed, which is a “question of public importance concerning the scope of victims’ rights” that is likely to come up in other cases.

In an amicus brief, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argues that no such right to be heard during a vacatur hearing exists under Maryland law, and even if the right exists, victims cannot challenge the evidentiary basis for vacating a conviction. “Several state courts have declined to transform a victim’s right to be heard into a right of active participation because giving victims the ability to adopt an adversarial position would effectively allow them to usurp the role of prosecutors, even though they are not a party to the criminal prosecution,” the brief argues. “Such a broad expansion of victims’ rights is unprecedented and would violate due process.”

Finally, the court will consider if Lee received sufficient notice of the hearing under Maryland law, including whether his Zoom attendance meets the statutory requirements. Syed’s lawyers further argue that under the law, Lee has the burden of proving that the results of the hearing would have been different but for the alleged errors, and he cannot satisfy that burden.

Paul Cassell, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah, said in an email that the Maryland Supreme Court case “is likely to be a significant step in the direction of making crime victims and their rights part of the architecture of day-to-day criminal justice in America.”


Rex Bossert, former editor in chief of the National Law Journal, is a freelance writer.


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