(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.