April 18, 2019

It has been nearly 5 years since the nation was buzzing about season 1 of the Serial podcast telling the story of Adnan Syed’s murder conviction in 2000. The podcast retold the story of his ex-girlfriend’s murder and examined whether the Maryland criminal justice system had wrongfully convicted Syed. A central theme to the podcast, as well as Syed’s original response to the charges, was that he simply could not account for a time period in the afternoon on the day his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee was murdered. He maintains the day was so otherwise uneventful that by the time he was charged with the murder he simply could not account for these few hours and therefore could not establish an alibi.

The public discussion erupted into debate as many followers strongly argued he was innocent, others believing firmly he was genuinely guilty, and some who adopted the same open-mindedness of Serial’s own host, Sarah Koenig. The aftermath of the podcast brought a renewed vigor to challenge his conviction in the courts and it seems even the courts aren’t reaching a consensus on this case.

The original post-conviction relief in Baltimore Circuit Court eventually resulted with Judge Martin Welch granting a new trial. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals March 2018 ruling disagreed with the circuit court’s basis for granting a new trial but did agree he should be given a new trial. In their March 8, 2019 ruling the Court of Appeals agreed with certain aspects of the Court of Special Appeals but ultimately determined they did not rise to the level of granting a new trial.

While the case was covered in the area when the trial originally occurred, the podcast brought nationwide interest and a renewed push to overturn Syed’s conviction. In 2016 this manifested as a post-conviction relief action claiming Syed’s trial attorney Cristina Gutierrez provided ineffective assistance of counsel. She has since passed away and has not been available to explain or defend her trial strategy. There were a number of basis for the ineffective assistance claim but the 2 most prominent arguments involved Gutierrez’s failure to call an alibi witness and to present evidence refuting the cellphone tower data placing him in the area where the body was discovered. Even the way these arguments were taken by the court varied at each level.

At trial, the prosecution presented evidence of cellphone tower records that placed Syed in the area of Leakin Park, where the body was later discovered. The reliability of that data has since been called into question and he challenged his trial counsel’s failure to cross-examine the witness who presented evidence regarding that data. In the circuit court level post-conviction relief, Judge Welch specifically called out this refuting evidence for its compelling nature. The 2 appellate courts dismissed this evidence through because the argument had not been presented in his original petition for relief and was added after a first appeal remanded the post-conviction relief case back to circuit court.

The evidence both appellate courts did place weight behind was an alibi witness not called in the initial trial. While Syed himself could not specifically account for a period of time on the day of the murder, one of his friends Asia McClain has been adamant that she saw him at the library at the time the murder may have occurred. In the original criminal trial, there are notes indicating his attorney was aware of McClain but she was never fully investigated as a potential witness. Both appellate courts took this into account and the Court of Appeals specifically points out that failing to fully investigate her as a witness fell below the standards of representation. The Court of Special Appeals found this failure sufficient to trigger a new trial. The Court of Appeals on the other hand disagreed and found that while it calls into question the precise time of the murder, it does nothing to rebut the overall motive and opportunity for the murder. They even point to testimony from state’s witness, Jay Wilds, which the McClain testimony would have done nothing to refute. Essentially, they find that because the state’s case did not heavily rely on a precise time of the murder, losing the testimony of a witness that refutes the time did not prejudice Syed.

Syed’s attorneys are already discussing their next strategy but have relented that any new approach will still likely leave Syed in prison for the foreseeable future.


Baltimore SunAdnan Syed case: Maryland high court reinstates ‘Serial’ subject’s conviction

Maryland Court of AppealsState v. Syed

Maryland Court of Special AppealsSyed v. State

Image Source: Carlos Barria/Reuters

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