On Tuesday, the Maryland Court of Appeals took the stunning step of reinstating Adnan Syed’s murder conviction and overturning a lower court order that released Syed in September. The Court of Appeals issued this extraordinary 2-1 decision not because the state wants him behind bars again; To the contrary, Maryland prosecutors believe Syed’s trial was unconstitutional and that he is in fact innocent. Rather, the Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction – against the objections of the trial parties – because the brother of the victim of the murder for which Syed was wrongly convicted had alleged violations of his own rights.
There are many, many examples of how the victims’ rights movement has undermined the constitutional rights of the accused. This one is far from the worst. But it is an unusually clear example of how a victim’s perceived rights can override the interests of justice, even in the rare cases where the state admits it was wrong. If a victim’s brother can single-handedly jeopardize the exoneration of a man whom prosecutors have already released, we have abandoned any pretense that a broad conception of victims’ rights can coexist with a fair criminal justice system.
The Syed case affects two of the most common rights of victims: the right to be notified of a proceeding and the right to participate in it. Maryland law protects both, and the state has made every effort to meet these requirements. Before prosecutor Becky Feldman filed a motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, she contacted Young Lee — the victim’s brother, Hae Min Lee — who is authorized to represent the victim under Maryland law. Feldman informed Lee of her intention to file the application. The next day, she called Lee and walked him through a draft of the proposal. The next day she submitted it. On Friday, she met with the judge, who set a hearing for the following Monday. Feldman promptly informed Lee of the hearing. He said he intends to make a victim statement through Zoom since he lives in California.
But on the morning of the hearing, Lee appealed, claiming he was not given adequate advance notice and that he had the right to appear in person, not virtually. The court heard arguments about Lee’s motion and denied it. Prosecutors then asked the court to vacate Syed’s conviction, and it did so and ordered his release. A few weeks later, the state issued a statement (referred to as “nol pros”) declaring that it was dropping the case against Syed. Lee then petitioned the Court of Appeals to reinstate Syed’s conviction on the grounds that it was overturned at a hearing that violated his own rights as the victim’s representative.
Initially, Lee’s motion should have been thrown out for one simple reason: After prosecutors filed a Nol Pro, the case became moot. Why? Because a court can no longer grant legal protection to the parties; Both Syed and the state wanted the prosecution to end for good. But the Court of Appeals sided with Lee and simply invented a new rule to get around this problem: Even if the actual parties to a case want the prosecution dropped, a victim can do so quiet override their decision by claiming that their own rights have been violated. This also applies if the parties have fulfilled all their legal obligations to end the proceedings.
Of course, this justification only works if Lee’s rights have been violated. To determine this, the court had to invent two more completely new rules. First, the court ruled that a victim must be given more than three days’ notice of a hearing in order to overturn a conviction, making Lee’s notice inadequate. Second, the court ruled that a victim has the right to do so participate such a personal hearing—although they have no right to participate. In other words, the court does not have to allow a victim to read their effects statement. But if they choose to do so, they must have the victim personally read it. None of these principles have any basis in precedent. The court just invented them out of thin air.
It seems likely that the court invented these rules because it finds Syed guilty and disapproves of the state’s actions. In fact, the court began its verdict with a long, legally irrelevant section questioning Syed’s innocence. But that is not for the court, as it knows, to decide at this point. Instead, the court used Lee’s rights to prevent Syed’s exoneration.
This is exactly how victims’ rights often work in practice. Consider the ramifications of this decision: If the court is right, Lee could have delayed the hearing and kept Syed behind bars indefinitely by insisting that prosecutors had not given enough notice. Lee could have delayed it even further by demanding additional time to travel across the country to attend (although, as the court agreed, he had no right to read a victim’s impact statement). Syed, a man declared innocent by the state, would have been behind bars, violating his own rights so that a victim’s alleged rights could be defended.
This problem is not limited to this case. In some states, an expansion of victims’ rights has resulted in longer prison terms for defendants as prosecutors struggle to find victims and give them proper notice. The obligation to report now also applies to minor offenses such as vandalism, imprisonment for crimes that do not even lead to imprisonment. These problems arise from the Marsy Act, a comprehensive set of victims’ rights passed by more than a dozen states. Marsy’s law reforms have also barred law enforcement from releasing information about crimes to the public. allowed officers to hide their identities after shooting at civilians; made it more difficult for witness assistants to work with victims; and have victims decline interview and discovery requests from the accused. This supposed protection brazenly undermines the right of the accused to due process and a fair trial.
Maryland has not passed the Marsy statute (yet), and yet the Maryland Court of Appeals has imposed a requirement similar to the Marsy statute on the existing statute. Because of this, Syed has a good chance of getting a reversal in the Maryland Supreme Court (he is allowed to stay out of prison pending his appeal). This case gives the Maryland Supreme Court an opportunity to restore an appropriate balance between the rights of victims and defendants. Victims of violent crime absolutely deserve to be kept informed of the offender’s process. They must not be allowed to use their victim status to veto another person’s right to liberty. Maryland law reflects this principle. The Maryland Supreme Court was to follow It.