Appeals court gives ‘Serial’ podcast subject Adnan Syed a new murder trial

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Adnan Syed, currently serving a life sentence for the 1999 death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, is set to receive a new trial after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals today upheld a Baltimore judge’s ruling that the “Serial” podcast subject should be re-tried with new evidence taken into account.

In a 138-page ruling, the panel determined Syed had received ineffective legal counsel because his late defense attorney, Cristinia Gutierrez, failed to interview a key alibi witness named Asia McClain.

McClain sent Syed a pair of letters after he was convicted saying she had seen him in Woodlawn Public Library at the same time Lee was murdered. Syed had urged Gutierrez to speak with McClain to prove his innocence, but Gutierrez told him she had “looked into it and nothing came of it,” according to today’s ruling.

Two of the three judges on the panel said Gutierrez’s failure to interview McClain was enough to warrant a new trial. One of them dissented, arguing “it would be a reasonable decision [for Gutierrez] not to contact Ms. McClain to pursue that alibi” in the event she had falsified it in collaboration with Syed.

But ultimately, the panel concluded, “Accordingly, Syed’s murder 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.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, representing the state, could still appeal the panel’s ruling rather than allow the case to go before a jury in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“We are currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” a spokeswoman from his office wrote in an email.

In the event that it does reach Baltimore City Circuit Court, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby would be entrusted with prosecuting Syed. In an email, Mosby’s chief of staff said “we are currently reviewing the opinion…and have no further comment at this time.”

Syed’s attorney, Justin Brown, said at a live-streamed press conference that he had spoken with his client before and after the hearing.

“It’s been a really long wait, and that’s been hard,” Brown said. “It’s been stressful, and obviously not just for us, but for Adnan, who’s been in prison for 19 years, going on 20 years in prison. Our goal is to get him out of prison.”

Lee’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in Leakin Park in early 1999. Homicide detectives determined she had been strangled to death. Her ex-boyfriend, Syed, was convicted of killing her the following year.

The complicated murder case became national news when journalist and former “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig reopened it, so to speak, in her investigative podcast. The narrative was compelling enough for tens of millions to download the podcast within its first year. Many listeners took Syed’s side, pointing to the lack of McClain’s testimony and also Gutierrez’s failure to cross-examine a cell phone tower expert about evidence the state used to place Syed at the scene of the crime.

Asked about the effect “Serial” has had on the case, Brown said it “kind of shook the trees,” and is actually what helped his team track McClean down two years ago and bring her to Baltimore to help with their appeal of Syed’s conviction.

That testimony, and the cell phone tower argument, helped convince retired Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch to rule Syed should be given a new trial. The state appealed, ultimately leaving it up to the Maryland Court of Appeals to decide.

Interestingly, the appeals court panel reversed the lower court’s ruling that the cell phone tower piece should be reconsidered. Brown said his team expected that.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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