Maryland Appeals Court Vacates Conviction, Orders New Trial of ‘Serial’ Star

Adnan Syed enters Courthouse East in Baltimore prior to a hearing on Feb. 3, 2016. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

(CN) – A Maryland appeals court on Thursday vacated the murder and related convictions of the man at the center of popular “Serial” podcast, saying he’s entitled to a new trial due to the ineffective assistance he received from his lawyer when the case was first tried 18 years ago.

Adnan Syed, 38, was convicted in 2000 of murdering Hae Min Lee a year earlier and burying her in a shallow grave in a park in northwest Baltimore. He was sentenced to life in prison.

During a post-conviction hearing in early February, Syed’s attorneys argued he deserved a retrial on the grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, did not contact Asia McClain Chapman, an alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the Woodlawn library about the same time prosecutors say Lee was murdered.

Additionally, Syed’s current attorneys argued cell tower data linking Syed’s phone to the burial site on the day of Lee’s murder was misleading because it was presented to jurors without a cover sheet warning that incoming call data was unreliable.

In June 2016, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled Syed deserved a new trial, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals stayed the ruling to give the government time to appeal.

According to the 138-page ruling written by Chief Judge Patrick Woodward, “trial counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced Syed’s defense because, but for trial counsel’s failure to investigate, there is a reasonable probability that [Asia] McClain’s alibi testimony would have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed’s involvement.”

McClain, who now goes by Asia McClain Chapman, claimed she saw Syed at  library in Woodlawn at the time prosecutors said Lee was killed.

“Because Syed has proven both the performance and prejudice prongs of the Strickland test, we conclude that his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel has been established,” the ruling states. “Accordingly, the conviction must be vacated, and because Syed’s convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment are predicated on his commission of Hae’s murder, these convictions must be vacated as well. The instant case will be remanded for a new trial on all charges against Syed.”

The court majority also said the cost of the new trial will be borne by Baltimore’s mayor and city council.

In a dissent, Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff said because Cristina Gutierrez has died since Syed’s original trial, it is impossible to know why she decided not to contact McClain, and may have felt she had valid reasons for not doing so.

“We do know, based on the record, that trial counsel presented a vigorous defense of Syed in the face of strong evidence of guilt,” Graeff wrote.

Based on this, Graeff concluded Syed failed to overcome the presumption that Gurierrez’s failure to contact McClain was based on reasonable trial strategy.

“I would reverse the judgment of the circuit court granting Syed a new trial,” Graeff said.

Graeff conceded Syed’s former attorney “had the duty to make some effort to contact McClain,” once learning she was a possible alibi witness but said there may have been “good reasons” behind Gutierrez’s reasoning.

“For example, if the defense is that the defendant was in Maryland during the time a crime was committed in Virginia, defense counsel reasonably could conclude there was no need to contact or follow up on a potential witness who said that he or she saw the defendant in California at the time of the crime,” Graeff wrote.

Graeff referenced a host of criminal cases to support her dissent, notably Weeks v. Senkowski.

In the 2003 case, Wilbur Weeks claimed he gave his trial counsel a list of alibi witnesses who would testify that he was drinking with them on the day he allegedly committed murder.

Though Weeks argued he was denied effective assistance of counsel because trial counsel would not interview those witnesses, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein rejected the argument, saying the decision to exclude those witnesses was a “sound strategic choice.”

“[This case] illustrates that counsel does not, contrary to Syed’s argument, have an absolute duty to interview a witness identified as an alibi witness. Rather, the duty  is to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary,” Graeff wrote.

Furthermore, while McClain testimony may have addressed the question of where Syed was after school, it “did nothing to dispute the voluminous evidence connecting Syed to the burial of the body,” Graeff argued.

“The trial counsel’s strategy with respect to the actual murder, based on her cross-examination of the medical examiner and her closing argument, was that there was no evidence regarding the victim’s time of death,” Graeff wrote.

Prosecutors argued Lee was killed at 2:36 p.m. and claimed Syed called a friend, Jay Wilds, asking for a ride to nearby Best Buy store.  Trial counsel also argued the medical examiner was unable to confirm Lee’s time of death. But another witness, Deborah Warren, testified she saw Lee at 3 p.m. on the day of the murder.

“The record supports the post-conviction court’s conclusion that the State had limited evidence pinpointing the time of the murder. Indeed, as the post-conviction court noted, Wilds’ testimony, that Syed did not call Wilds to pick him up until after 3:45 p.m., was inconsistent with the State’s argument that Syed called Wilds at 2:36 p.m.,” Graeff noted.

The state prosecutors presentation of significant evidence connecting Syed to Lee’s burial however, was the lynchpin for Graeff’s dissent.

“Focusing too much on Syed’s whereabouts right after school, would not have been particularly helpful, given the context of the State’s entire case, especially when weighed against the potential pitfalls presented by pursuing McClain’s testimony,” Graeff said.

During a news conference held shortly after Thursday’s ruling was announced, Syed attorney Christopher Nieto said “what we have learned from Adnan’s case is that the wheels of justice are rolling in the right direction and that’s where we’re focused now.”

“What  Each step. It’s tough to get over it, but we’re making that progress. We are very pleased with the ruling and where we are and what we’ll be able to do for Mr. Syed going forward,” Nieto said.

Co-counsel C. Justin Brown said Syed has “been a great client.”

“His family is incredibly kind and generous and they give me my space to do my thing and so many other people who have been there, supporting these efforts,” Brown said. “He’s been in prison for a very long time and this is enormously stressful to any defendant. When the boat starts to shake and rock, that’s stressful.”

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