Faithful listeners will soon know more about the fate of Adnan Syed, whose case captured the attention of millions through the popular podcast Serial. Each week, audience sympathies vacillated over Syed’s guilt as further case information was released. Syed, who was convicted of murder in the year 2000, has recently been granted a new trial on appeal.
The case surrounds the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, and the prosecution of Syed, her former boyfriend, who was convicted of her murder following a lengthy trial. Lee and Syed’s dating relationship ended prior to the murder. The couple largely kept their relationship secret due to cultural differences which created tension in their respective families.
Key Witness in Original Case against Adnan Syed
The State’s key witness was Jay Wilde, a classmate of both Syed and Lee. Wilde testified that on the day of the murder, Adnan Syed gave him his car and told Wilde to pick him up later that day. Adnan Syed then caught a ride with Lee. Shortly after school, Syed drove Lee’s car to the Best Buy parking lot where he called Wilde to be picked up. The State postulated that this is where Syed strangled Lee. When Wilde arrived, he claimed that Syed showed him Lee’s body, and Wilde helped dump her car at the Interstate 70 Park and Ride. Later that evening, the pair drove to Leakin Park where they buried Lee in a shallow grave and then abandoned her car behind an apartment complex. When the car was recovered, police found a map book with a map of Leakin Park torn out. The State presented evidence at trial that Syed received two phone calls the night Lee was killed which place him in the park.
The Innocence Project Gets Involved
At trial, Syed was represented by attorney Mara Cristina Gutierrez. He was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. The judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 30 years. Syed has always maintained his innocence. To that end, Syed contacted the Innocence Project requesting help.
Maryland Court of Appeals
In late March of this year, Syed won the latest round in a two decade legal battle. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Syed should be granted a new trial. Syed’s legal team appealed his conviction in 2016 claiming his attorney was ineffective at trial. The Baltimore Circuit Court originally ruled he should get a new trial, but the State appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Their claim is founded on Gutierrez’s knowledge of an alibi witness named Asian McClain who told Gutierrez that she saw Adnan Syed in the library at the time of the murder. McClain contacted Syed shortly after he was arrested to express her willingness to testify on his behalf. Adnan Syed informed Gutierrez of McClain’s existence and requested the surveillance video from the library be reviewed. Gutierrez assured Adnan Syed she would look into both matters, but after trial, Syed learned neither McClain nor the library was ever contacted.
Why is Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Difficult to Win?
An ineffective assistance of counsel claim is extremely difficult to win. In Strickland vs. Washington, the US Supreme Court held that not only must an attorney’s performance be deficient, but the deficient performance must be so serious that it could have changed the outcome of the case.
In this case, the three judge panel found that the alibi testimony was so persuasive and significant that it might have changed the jury’s verdict had it been introduced at trial. The panel decided that it certainly could have raised reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed’s involvement in the murder.
Because of the Appellate Court’s decision, Syed will receive a new trial with a new lawyer defending him. If the alibi witness testifies, Syed’s defense will most likely focus upon Wilde and argue that he killed Lee. However, Syed will still have to explain why his cell phone was located at the location where Lee’s body was found.