A Maryland appeals court on Tuesday reinstated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, 41, who was found guilty of the 1999 killing of his former girlfriend in a case that drew attention after the podcast Serial raised doubts about his guilt.
After an investigation identified problems with the case, a circuit court judge last year vacated Syed's conviction in the murder of Hae Min Lee and ordered his release. He had served more than 20 years in prison.
The judge left it to prosecutors to decide whether to retry him and they decided to drop the case.
On Tuesday, a Maryland appellate court panel, in a 2-1 decision, ordered a new hearing into the matter, saying the lower court had violated the right of the victim's family to attend a critical hearing in the case.
“This Court has the power and obligation to remedy those violations, as long we can do so without violating Mr Syed’s right to be free from double jeopardy,” the panel said in its ruling.
“Accordingly, we vacate the circuit court's order vacating Mr Syed's convictions, which results in the reinstatement of the original convictions and sentence,” it said.
The panel did not specifically order Syed back to prison, but allowed for a two-month delay in the “mandate” of its decision to allow the parties “time to assess how to proceed.”
Syed has maintained he was innocent and did not kill Lee, who was 18 when she was strangled and buried in a Baltimore park. The podcast Serial, produced by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, drew national attention to the case in 2014.
One of Syed's lawyers said he remained free and the latest decision was not about his innocence but more about proceedings.
The lawyer said Syed's team would seek a review in the Supreme Court of Maryland.
“The Appellate Court of Maryland has reinstated Adnan’s convictions, not because the Motion to Vacate was erroneous, but because Ms Lee’s brother did not appear in person at the vacatur hearing,” Erica Suter, Syed's counsel, said.
“There is no basis for re-traumatising Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon.”
Prosecutors filed a motion last September to vacate the conviction after conducting a year-long investigation alongside a public defender representing Syed.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn subsequently ordered Syed to be released from prison, where he was serving a life sentence.