On Tuesday, the Appellate Court of Maryland took the stunning step of reinstating Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, vacating a lower court order that freed Syed in September. The appeals court issued this extraordinary 2–1 decision not because the state wants him back behind bars; to the contrary, Maryland prosecutors believe Syed’s trial was unconstitutional and that he is, in fact, innocent. Rather, the appeals court reinstated the conviction—over the objection of the parties to the case—because the brother of the victim in the murder for which Syed was wrongfully convicted complained that his own rights were violated.
There are many, many examples of how the victims’ rights movement has subverted the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. This one is far from the worst. But it is an unusually prominent illustration of how a victim’s putative rights can override the interests of justice, even on those rare occasions when the state admits it has erred. When a victim’s brother can single-handedly imperil the exoneration of a man whom prosecutors already set free, we have abandoned any pretense that an expansive conception of victims’ rights can coexist with a fair criminal legal system.
The Syed case involves two of the most common rights of victims: the right to receive notice of a proceeding and the right to attend it. Maryland law protects both, and the state made every effort to comply with these requirements. Before the prosecutor, Becky Feldman, filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, she contacted Young Lee—the brother of the victim, Hae Min Lee—who is entitled to represent the victim under Maryland law. Feldman informed Lee of her intent to file the motion. The next day, she called Lee and walked him through a draft of the motion. She filed it the next day. On Friday, she met with the judge, who scheduled a hearing for the following Monday. Feldman promptly informed Lee of the hearing. He said he intended to deliver a victim impact statement via Zoom since he lived in California.
Yet on the morning of the hearing, Lee filed an objection, asserting that he was not given sufficient advance notice and that he had a right to appear in person, not virtually. The court heard argument on Lee’s motion and denied it. Prosecutors then asked the court to vacate Syed’s conviction, and it did so, ordering him released. A few weeks later, the state entered a declaration (called a “nol pros”) declaring its abandonment of the case against Syed. Lee then asked the appeals court to reinstate Syed’s conviction on the grounds that it was vacated at a hearing that violated his own rights as a victim’s representative.
At the outset, Lee’s request should’ve been tossed out for a simple reason: Once prosecutors filed a nol pros, the case became moot. Why? Because a court could no longer grant relief to the parties; both Syed and the state wanted the prosecution to end for good. Yet in siding with Lee, the appeals court simply made up a new rule to get around this problem: Even when the actual parties to a case want a prosecution to end, it held, a victim can still overrule their decision by asserting that their own rights were violated. That’s true even when the parties have fulfilled all their legal obligations to bring the case to a close.
Of course, this rationale only works if Lee’s rights were violated. To find that they were, the court had to make up two more completely novel rules. First, the court held that a victim must be notified of a hearing to vacate a conviction more than three days in advance, rendering Lee’s notice insufficient. Second, the court held that a victim has the right to attend such a hearing in person—even though they have no right to participate. In other words, the court need not let a victim read their impact statement. But if they choose to do so, they must let the victim read it in person. Neither of these principles have any basis in precedent. The court just fabricated them out of thin air.
It seems likely that the court invented these rules because it believes Syed is guilty and disapproves of the state’s actions. Indeed, the court began its opinion with a lengthy, legally irrelevant section questioning Syed’s innocence. But that is not for the court to decide at this stage, as it well knows. So instead, the court leveraged Lee’s rights to obstruct Syed’s exoneration.
Which is exactly how victims’ rights often work in practice. Consider the implications of this decision: If the court is right, then Lee could have delayed the hearing, keeping Syed behind bars some indeterminate amount of time, by insisting that prosecutors provided insufficient notice. Lee could have delayed it even further by demanding extra time to travel cross-country to attend (even though, as the court agreed, he had no right to read a victim impact statement). Syed, a man deemed innocent by the state, would have languished behind bars, his own rights infringed so a victim’s purported rights could be vindicated.
That problem is not unique to this case. In some states, an expansion of victims’ rights has led to longer jail time for defendants as prosecutors struggle to find victims and provide them proper notice. The notification requirement now applies to minor crimes like vandalism, depriving defendants of their liberty over an offense that won’t even result in a prison sentence. These problems stem from Marsy’s Law, a set of sweeping victims’ rights adopted by more than a dozen states. Marsy’s Law reforms have also blocked law enforcement from releasing information about crimes to the public; allowed officers to conceal their identities after shooting civilians; made it harder for witness assistants to work with victims; and let victims refuse interview and discovery requests from the accused. These ostensible protections brazenly undermine defendants’ due process and fair trial rights.
Maryland has not passed Marsy’s Law (so far), and yet the Appellate Court of Maryland still imposed a Marsy’s Law–like requirement on existing law. For that reason, Syed stands a good chance of winning reversal at the Maryland Supreme Court (he will be permitted to stay out of prison while he appeals). This case gives Maryland’s high court an opportunity to restore a proper balance between the rights of victims and defendants. People affected by violent crime absolutely deserve to be kept abreast of proceedings involving the offender. They cannot be permitted to use their status as a victim to veto another person’s right to liberty. Maryland law reflects this principle. The Maryland Supreme Court should follow it.