Lee v. State

Decision Date28 March 2023
Docket Number1291-2022
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 199103042

Wells C.J., Graeff, Berger, JJ.



This appeal involves convictions dating back to 2000, when a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Adnan Syed one of the appellees, for, among other things, the 1999 murder of 17-year-old Hae Min Lee.[1] The court imposed an aggregate sentence of life plus 30 years, and Mr. Syed filed multiple, ultimately unsuccessful, challenges to his convictions in the years that followed.[2]

In September 2022, the State, also an appellee, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City a motion to vacate Mr. Syed's convictions pursuant to Md. Code Ann., Crim. Proc. Art. ("CP") § 8-301.1 (Supp. 2022) (the "vacatur statute"). After a hearing, the court granted the motion and vacated Mr. Syed's convictions.

Young Lee, Hae's brother, appealed to this Court, arguing that the circuit court erred in entering judgment without giving him adequate notice of the vacatur hearing, or a meaningful opportunity to appear and be heard on the merits of the motion to vacate, in violation of the victims' rights provided for in CP §§ 11-101 to 11-619 (2018 Repl. Vol. & Supp. 2022). He subsequently filed, in the circuit court and this Court, a motion to stay further circuit court proceedings. On October 11, 2022, two days before a response to the motion filed in this Court was due, the State entered a nolle prosequi on all charges against Mr. Syed.[3] On October 12, 2022, in light of the State's action, this Court entered an order denying the motion to stay and ordering Mr. Lee to show cause why this appeal should not be dismissed as moot.

On November 4, 2022, after the parties filed responses, this Court ordered that the appeal would proceed, and we directed the parties to brief the following issues on appeal:

1. Whether the appeal is moot.
2. If the appeal is moot, whether this Court should exercise its discretion to issue an opinion on the merits of Mr. Lee's crime victims' rights claim.
3. Whether the notice that Mr. Lee received in advance of the circuit court's vacatur hearing complied with the applicable constitutional provisions, statutes, and rules.

For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the case is not moot, and the court did not provide Mr. Lee with the rights to be afforded a victim or victim's representative pursuant to the applicable constitutional provisions and Maryland statutes. Accordingly, we shall vacate the judgment of the circuit court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The underlying facts and proceedings have been detailed in previous reported opinions. See State v. Syed, 463 Md. 60, cert. denied, 140 S.Ct. 562 (2019); Syed v. State, 236 Md.App. 183 (2018), rev'd 463 Md. 60 (2019). With respect to the initial convictions, we need not set forth a comprehensive discussion of the evidence, but we note the following "substantial direct and circumstantial evidence," Syed, 463 Md. at 97, previously set forth regarding Mr. Syed's guilt:

[Jay] Wilds testified that Mr. Syed had complained of [Hae's] treatment of him and said that he intended "to kill that bitch." Mr. Wilds claimed to have seen the body of [Hae] in the trunk of her car at the Best Buy parking lot.[4][Jennifer] Pusateri, a friend of Mr. Wilds, told police, and testified at trial consistent with those statements, that Mr. Wilds told her that [Hae] had been strangled. At the time Ms. Pusateri relayed this information to the police, the manner of [Hae's] death had not been publicly released. Mr. Syed's cell phone records showed him receiving a call in the vicinity of Leakin Park at the time that Mr. Wilds claimed he and Mr. Syed were there to bury [Hae's] body. Mr. Wilds directed the police to the location of [Hae's] abandoned vehicle, which law enforcement had been unable to find for weeks. Mr. Syed's palm print was found on the back cover of a map book that was found inside [Hae's] car; the map showing the location of Leakin Park had been removed from the map book. Various witnesses, including Ms. Pusateri, Nisha Tanna, and Kristina Vinson, testified to either seeing or speaking by cell phone with Mr. Wilds and Mr. Syed together at various times throughout the afternoon and evening on January 13, 1999.

Id. at 93. "The medical examiner determined that [Hae] had died by strangulation." Id. at 96. With respect to Mr. Syed's motive to kill Hae, "the State presented evidence that [Mr. Syed] was jealous and enraged at [Hae's] new romantic relationship with another man." Id. at 95-96.

Mr. Syed's own statements regarding his actions on the day Hae disappeared were inconsistent. Id. at 90, 93. He told police on the night of her disappearance, January 13, 1999, that he was supposed get a ride home from her, but he got detained at school and assumed she left without him. Id. at 90. Two weeks later, on January 25, 1999, he told police that he drove his own car to school and had not arranged to ride with Hae. Id. A month later, on February 26, 1999, Mr. Syed said that he could not remember what he did on the day Hae disappeared. Id.

I. Motion to Vacate

On September 14, 2022, the State filed a motion to vacate Mr. Syed's convictions pursuant to CP § 8-301.1. The motion alleged that, after a "nearly year-long investigation," the State and the defense "uncovered Brady[5] violations and new information, all concerning the possible involvement of two alternative suspects." The motion further alleged that the State and the defense had also identified "significant reliability issues regarding the most critical pieces of evidence at trial." The State noted that investigative efforts were ongoing, and it was not asserting that Mr. Syed was innocent. It stated, however, that it no longer had "confidence in the integrity of the conviction," and therefore, it believed that it was in the interests of justice that the convictions be vacated and that Mr. Syed, "at a minimum, be afforded a new trial." The State advised that, if the motion was granted, the decision to proceed with a new trial or enter a nol pros of the charges was "contingent upon the results of the ongoing investigative efforts."[6]

A. Brady Violations and New Information

The motion alleged that the State had developed evidence that suggested the possible involvement of two alternative suspects. Initially, it located a document indicating that a person provided information to the State that one of the suspects had motive to kill Hae, had threatened to kill her in the presence of another individual, and said that "he would make . . . [Hae] disappear. He would kill her." The second document indicated that a different person gave information "that can be viewed as a motive for that same suspect to harm the victim."[7] The State alleged that this information was not in defense counsel's trial file, and it was not included in any of the State's discovery disclosures. The motion alleged that the failure to disclose this alternative suspect information was material and would have been helpful to the defense. The motion then noted in a footnote, however, that, "[i]f this information was indeed provided to [the] defense, then minimally, the failure to utilize this evidence would constitute ineffective assistance of trial counsel."

The motion alleged that new evidence had been found during the investigation in 2022, i.e., that the location where Hae's car was found, in a grassy lot behind the 300 block of Edgewood Avenue in Baltimore City, was known to one of the alternative suspects, and that person lived at that location in 1999. The State alleged that such information was not available to the defense at trial, and "it would have provided persuasive support substantiating the defense that another person was responsible for the victim's death."

The State indicated that it had new information that one of the alternative suspects had been convicted of violent acts, and one of the suspects had improperly been cleared as a suspect by a polygraph test. The State asserted that, "to protect the integrity of the on-going investigation, the names of the suspects, which suspect in particular, and the specific details of the information obtained will not be provided at this time."[8]

B. Reliability of Trial Evidence

The State then alleged that, although the Brady violations justified the grant of a new trial, a review of the evidence gave the State additional concerns contributing to its conclusion that it no longer had faith in the integrity of the convictions. It discussed consultations with two expert witnesses who "called the reliability of the State's testimony at trial [regarding the cellphone location evidence] into question." It alleged that new information regarding Ms. Vinson's schedule on January 13, 1999, called into question her testimony that Mr. Wilds and Mr. Syed came to her home on January 13 at approximately 6:00 p.m., and during the visit, Mr. Syed received a call on his cell phone and quickly left.

The State asserted that it could not rely on Mr. Wilds' testimony alone, noting "concerning discrepancies" between Mr. Wilds' various statements, his testimony, the cell phone records, and the State's timeline at trial. Finally, the State alleged that, although it was not making any claims regarding the integrity of the police investigation, it was obligated to note the misconduct of Baltimore Police Detective William Ritz, one of the homicide detectives who initially investigated Hae's murder and Mr. Syed's involvement in the crime, in another case.

II. Response...

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