“Serial” Podcast’s Adnan Syed Might Go Back to Prison Because of Toxic Maryland Politics

The whiplash-inducing back and forth of the most viral true-crime case in recent memory might owe to disputes between local- and state-level officials.

Adnan Sayed gets emotional as he speaks to reporters outside the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal building after a hearing on Feb. 2, 2023. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Adnan Syed cries as he speaks to reporters outside the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal building after a hearing on Feb. 2, 2023. Photo: Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Even if you’ve never heard “Serial,” the true-crime podcast that went viral in 2014, you’ve probably heard about the case it made famous. Adnan Syed was 17 years old when he was arrested in 1999 for killing 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore. A jury found Syed guilty the following year, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

After “Serial” premiered in 2014 and raised questions about the case, a Maryland court heard Syed’s appeal and he was awarded a new trial. Holes in the original prosecution were established, new suspects were identified, and DNA evidence was newly tested. After a long fight, his conviction was overturned last year, and the charges against him were officially dropped in October 2022.

In March of this year, though, Syed’s conviction was reinstated. Lee’s family had filed an appeal and argued that the state’s attorney — what the state of Maryland calls its local prosecutors — hadn’t given adequate notice for them to attend the September hearing to vacate Syed’s conviction, though Lee’s brother did attend the hearing on Zoom. Nonetheless, a panel of three appellate judges ruled 2-to-1 in the family’s favor and reinstated the conviction and ordered a new hearing.

It may be tempting to chalk up the back and forth of Syed’s case to the vicissitudes of the court system, but the rollercoaster story also speaks to clashes of political personalities exacerbated by Maryland’s shifting tides on criminal justice reforms. The airing of “Serial” and the revival of Syed’s case came in tandem with a push for criminal justice reforms in Maryland that boosted Syed’s appeal — a push that became bound up with animosity between elected officials amid the pressure cooker of state politics. Now, as the dust settles over the infighting, Syed could be sent back to prison.

The interpersonal disputes surrounding the Syed case could now lead Maryland to reshape how victims influence the legal system, said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who runs the Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“There are just a variety of unique strands of interpersonal issues as well as a highly publicized case that received unusual amounts of media attention,” he said. “One of the things that’s troubling is that those factors may be playing a role in creating the precedent and establishing policy on what the role of victims are within this process.”

“It is troubling that perhaps there will be the shadow, at least, hanging over this case that the result is not based on sound legal reasoning or policy, but rather these other political factors,” Jaros said. “This is not the case that we want shaping and deciding the very complex question of the role that the victim’s family should play in the courtroom.” 

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 08: (L-R) Amy Berg, Susan Simpson, Asia McClain, and Rabia Chaudry
 of the television show "The Case Against Adnan Syed" speak during the HBO segment of the 2019 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on February 08, 2019 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Amy Berg, Susan Simpson, Asia McClain, and Rabia Chaudry of the television show “The Case Against Adnan Syed” speak during an event in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2019.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Marilyn Mosby v. Brian Frosh

At the center of the wrangling over the Syed case was a long-standing feud between the former Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and the former State’s Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby. Mosby, who handled the review of the Syed case, had been pushing a slew of criminal justice reforms in the background as Syed pursued his high-profile appeal. Mosby, however, was in the limelight herself, facing federal trial for perjury and fraud related to mortgage applications to purchase a home and condo in Florida. In a September television interview, Frosh suggested that Mosby had timed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction to distract from her own legal woes.

For Mosby, comments like Frosh’s revealed that more than a push for justice was at work in Syed’s appeal. Evidence of guilt, she said, was not driving Frosh’s support for putting Syed back behind bars, but rather interpersonal and political disputes. She told The Intercept, “There was definitely a personal animus from Frosh when he went into court and said the case wasn’t sustainable based on victim’s rights.” Frosh, for his part, told The Intercept that political disagreements with Mosby were unrelated to how his office handled Syed’s appeal: “Politics played absolutely no part in our office’s work on the case.”


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The pressure on Mosby’s office was not unique. A movement to address inequities in the criminal justice system and hold police misconduct to account helped sweep dozens of reform prosecutors into office since the mid-2010s. As the prosecutors moved to divert resources to violent crimes over low-level offenses, open wrongful conviction units, and prosecute police misconduct, the backlash was swift. Opponents of reform have been quick to blame these prosecutors for the rise in particular crimes that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

In states from California to Pennsylvania, reform prosecutors have faced increasing scrutiny and political attacks, with conservative officials and police unions leading the charge. At least 17 states have introduced legislation to limit the authority of reform prosecutors since 2017, and reform prosecutors are facing increasingly aggressive recall attempts. There are parallels between Mosby’s clashes with Frosh and reform prosecutors fighting with state-level officials in other places, but the interpersonal dimensions of the Syed case make it more complex than other disputes.

“What strikes me as very unusual about this is this kind of internecine battle between Mosby’s office and the AG’s office on it,” said Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law who studies wrongful convictions. “That’s what makes this more complicated.”  

“What strikes me as very unusual about this is this kind of internecine battle between Mosby’s office and the AG’s office on it.”

In Maryland, Mosby didn’t fall neatly into the reform prosecutor mold, but she became the target of attacks by Frosh and other politicians who blamed her policies for rising crime in Baltimore. In 2019, Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan called on Frosh, a Democrat, to take violent crime cases away from Mosby, claiming that her office repeatedly released people without charges. Frosh said his office would do anything it could to cooperate with the governor. Last year, Hogan blamed Mosby’s office for a spike in homicides.

In late September, Frosh explicitly linked the Syed case to his soft-on-crime attacks on Mosby. After her office filed the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, Frosh told reporters she should have worked harder to prosecute murder suspects. “If state’s attorney Mosby were concentrating as hard on trying murder cases and putting murderers behind bars as she has on this case,” Frosh said, referring to the Syed case, “I think our state would be quite a bit safer.”

A tribute to Hae Min Lee, class of 1999, in a Woodlawn High School yearbook. Lee was abducted and killed in 1999, and classmate Adnan Syed was convicted of her murder in 2000. The case received fresh attention in 2014 with the podcast âSerial.❠Hae Min Leeâs brother, Young Lee, has appealed the release of Syed in September 2022. (Hayes Gardner/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

A tribute to Hae Min Lee in a Woodlawn High School yearbook. Lee was abducted and killed in 1999.

Photo: Hayes Gardner/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Image

Attorney General’s Involvement

The fight between Mosby and Frosh over Syed’s case came to a head last March. Mosby’s office and Syed’s defense team had agreed to new DNA testing. Mosby filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction in September, saying her office had found evidence of Brady violations — failures to hand over potentially exculpatory evidence — by the attorney general’s office. At the time, Mosby said Frosh made a “willful decision” to withhold the evidence. Mosby’s office officially dropped charges against Syed in October.

It was around the time that the motion to vacate was filed that a former associate of Frosh’s intervened. Kathleen Murphy had first prosecuted the Syed case in 1999 in her past role in the state’s attorney’s office. From there, she went on to direct the criminal division in Frosh’s office, where she again worked on Syed’s case, handling the attorney general’s involvement. Last September, Hogan appointed Murphy to be a judge at the Baltimore County District Court.

After the appointment, but before she joined the bench, Murphy became involved again in the Syed case, but not in her official capacity: She placed a call to Steve Silverman, a partner at the private law firm Silverman Thompson, to ask for an attorney to represent Lee’s family, according to Mosby, Silverman’s partner Brian Thompson, and another person with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a pending case.

Silverman had been involved with the case and was planning to represent the family, according to Thompson. Instead, Steve Kelly, an alum of Silverman Thompson who worked at a separate firm when Murphy placed her call, took on the case instead. Kelly changed firms in June and is no longer listed on the case. (Silverman declined to comment, and Kelly did not respond to a request for comment. Attorneys for Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, declined to comment for this story while the case is pending.)

“It’s not unprecedented for prosecutors to try to assist victims,” said Medwed, the law professor. “I’m not aware of situations where they’ve called private lawyers.”

“It’s not unprecedented for prosecutors to try to assist victims. I’m not aware of situations where they’ve called private lawyers.”

Skirmishes between Frosh and Mosby continued to shape the legal fight between Syed and Lee’s family. In criminal appeals in Maryland, the attorney general is supposed to represent the state’s attorney. In the Syed case, however, Frosh frequently disparaged Mosby’s handling of the case in the press. Eventually, he supported the family’s appeal against Syed’s release, blasting Mosby in court for giving inadequate notice to Lee’s family to attend the hearing to vacate his conviction.

Frosh also criticized Mosby’s office for requesting new DNA testing in the case. He later told The Intercept in an interview that his attorney general’s office had already tested the DNA evidence, though Mosby said the evidence had not yet been tested.

One other wrinkle in the handling of the case by the attorney general’s office hangs over the Syed appeal. Thiru Vignarajah had worked the case from the attorney general’s office but was asked to leave his position in 2016 after an internal investigation into conduct toward his subordinates, several of whom claimed he harassed and abused them. When Vignarajah left for a private firm, though, he asked to take the Syed case with him.

It is common for the attorney general to hire outside counsel, which is what Vignarajah’s pro bono work on the Syed case was, Frosh said. “There was no compensation, it was just him finishing up work that he had been doing when he was in the office,” Frosh said. “It was not an unusual thing to do.” Jaros, the law professor, told The Intercept that attorneys typically do not transfer cases to private firms.

As a relatively new prosecutor with a heavy caseload, Mosby’s office welcomed the move. Frosh gave the green light and assigned Vignarajah to the case.

Marilyn Mosby, Maryland State Attorney for Baltimore City, speaks during a news conference pertaining to a case against Adnan Syed, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, in Baltimore. Mosby apologized to Syed and the family of Hae Min Lee after announcing that her office would not retry Syed for Lee's 1999 killing. A Baltimore judge last month overturned Syed's murder conviction and ordered him released from prison, where the 41-year-old had spent more than two decades. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Marilyn Mosby, Maryland state attorney for Baltimore city, speaks during a news conference pertaining to a case against Adnan Syed on Oct. 11, 2022, in Baltimore.

Photo: Julio Cortez/AP

Maryland Supreme Court

Syed’s appeal remains in limbo while attorneys for Lee’s family fight to keep his conviction intact. The outcome of the case is now up to the Maryland Supreme Court. A decision by the court, which agreed to take the case in June, is expected by the end of this year. (Syed’s defense attorney declined to comment while the case is pending.)

Mosby said it was untrue that her move to vacate Syed’s conviction was motivated by politics. She said Syed had applied as early as 2021 to have his case evaluated by a unit created by her office after Maryland passed a law allowing review of juvenile sentencing. She would not, however, have a chance to see the case through. Embattled by her indictment for perjury and fraud, Mosby lost reelection last year.

The new state’s attorney, Ivan Bates, quickly reversed some of her criminal justice reforms. While Bates previously said he would drop charges against Syed, he has since expressed concern with the handling of the case.

Frosh’s office framed the decision to reinstate Syed’s conviction as a win for victim’s rights, and the Lee family’s attorneys applauded it. Mosby maintains that Lee’s family knew about the hearing and agreed to attend on Zoom.

“Crime victims have never had a weak voice in the process, so I think that’s a hard argument to make,” said Jaros, the University of Baltimore law professor, speaking of Frosh’s framing of the case. “We’re seeing an unusual willingness to involve the system in this case and reverse decisions and potentially create new precedent based on circumstances that are really somewhat unique to this case.”

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