(CN) – A Baltimore court is poised to decide whether the man whose murder conviction and claims of innocence were the basis of the hit “Serial” podcast will get a new trial.
As listeners to the podcast, a spinoff of public radio’s This American Life, know Adnan Syed was convicted on February 25, 2000, of murdering his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 after she began dating someone else.
It was his second trial on the murder and other charges, the first having ended in a mistrial.
Maryland Circuit Court Judge Wanda Heard sentenced him to life in prison for the murder, 30 years for kidnapping, and 10 years for robbery, other charges on which he’d been convicted in connection with the crime.
Syed appealed his conviction, but that appeal was denied in March 2003.
For 12 weeks this past fall, Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig, walked listeners through the case, examining Syed’s alibi, inconsistencies in the stories told by witnesses, strengths and weaknesses in the investigation, and ultimately whether Syed got a fair trial.
Hae Min Lee’s family declined to participate in the program, but Syed, appeared each week via recorded telephone calls from prison, professing his innocence and responding to each discovery Koenig made.
On Tuesday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, announced it is considering Syed’s appeal of his life sentence, which he is basing on two arguments:
That he received ineffective counsel during his trial because his attorney ignored his requests to negotiate a plea deal; and,
That his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to interview a witness who could have provided him with an alibi. Gutierrez, who was later disbarred for her actions in another case, died of a heart attack in 2004.
Prosecutors immediately rejected Syed’s assertions, telling the court they never offered him a plea deal, and that there is no evidence his lawyer failed him.
“What the record shows is that Petitioner was totally satisfied with Gutierrez’s services until the jury returned an adverse verdict,” the prosecutors said.
In their account of the proceedings in the case, the prosecutors state that Syed first raised the idea of a possible plea deal, after his first trial ended in a mistrial. They said, Gutierrez responded by telling her client no deal had been offered. Further, they say, Syed later acknowledged he always maintained his innocence to Guitierrez.
“Petitioner suggested he would have considered a pleas offer that carried a sentence of ’20 or 30 years,’ assuming, however, he would only have to serve ‘half the time.’ Petitioner never got more specific than that with respect to the terms he would have considered. … Petitioner never testified that he would have admitted guilt to any of the specific charges in the case,” the prosecutors say.
They contend that based on the record, Syed would never have pleaded guilty to the charges, and therefore no deal was possible. To get the deal outlined above, he would have had to have pleaded guilty to at least second-degree murder.
“In light of these facts, any attempt by trial counsel to engage the prosecution in pleas negotiations certainly would have been a futile, if not counterproductive, effort,” the prosecutors contend.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Innocence Project has announced it will file a separate motion with the court requesting that DNA-testing be performed on physical evidence from the case.
Syed is represented by C. Justin Brown of Baltimore.
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