A Maryland appeals court has reinstated the conviction of Adnan Syed, the man who was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee 19 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed’s case received international attention after it was featured in the first season of the podcast Serial.
The 4-3 split decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals determined that while Syed’s defense was deficient during his 2000 murder trial, it “did not prejudice” the case, thus negating Syed’s need for a new trial.
Syed was convicted in 2000 of murdering Lee, who disappeared in January 1999 and whose body was found in Baltimore’s Leaken Park less than a month later. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In response to the Court of Appeals’ decision, Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown issued a statement on Twitter. “We will not give up,” he said.
We will not give up. #FreeAdnan
— Justin Brown (@CJBrownLaw) March 8, 2019
The Court of Appeals’ decision is a reversal of a lower appellate court’s 2016 decision, which vacated Syed’s conviction and granted him a new trial. Maryland’s highest court agreed to hear Syed’s case last July.
Syed’s case became international news in 2014, when producer Sarah Koenig launched Serial, an in-depth, serialized investigation of the case. Serial raised questions not only about Syed’s guilt, but also about the competence of Syed’s original attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, who was disbarred in 2001 following unrelated complaints made against her by clients to the state Attorney Grievance Commission. Gutierrez passed away in 2004.
In 2016, Syed’s attorneys argued that Syed should receive a new trial on the grounds that Gutierrez did not call a key witness, Asia McClain Chapman, to the stand. McClain Chapman had initially claimed to police that she had seen Syed at the library during the time that prosecutors argued he had killed Lee in a Best Buy parking lot, thus giving him an alibi at the time of the murder, an account she reiterated when she testified on Syed’s behalf in 2016. Syed’s defense team also argued that Gutierrez failed to introduce evidence that could have potentially undermined cell-phone tower data evidence, which was key to the state’s case against Syed.
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Judge Martin P. Welch, the judge who presided over Syed’s 2016 appeal in lower court, agreed with the defense, vacating his conviction and granting him the right to a new trial.
The higher court, however, overturned Welch’s ruling, with former Maryland deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah arguing that Gutierrez may not have chosen to call McClain Chapman to the stand as part of her defense strategy. Vignarajah also argued that vacating Syed’s conviction would set a precedent that all defense attorneys must call up all witnesses for the defenses, regardless of how strong their testimonies are.
“Syed’s trial counsel was not required to call McClain as a witness just because there was a chance, however slight, that the jury would have viewed her testimony as exculpatory,” the state wrote in its decision to reinstate Syed’s conviction. “No reasonable criminal defense lawyer would advocate that, in every case, the defense should, to use a colloquialism, ‘throw everything at the wall to see what sticks.’ Instead, a reasonable criminal defense lawyer should evaluate each piece of allegedly exculpatory evidence to determine whether it would, in fact, help the defendant.”
In the absence of further explanation from Gutierrez, the court essentially argued that while Syed’s counsel may have been deficient, it was not to the extent that we can reasonably assume it would have affected the outcome of the case.
In a statement, Brown strongly disagreed with this reasoning. “There was a credible alibi witness who was with Adnan at the precise time of the murder and now the Court of Appeals has said that witness would not have affected the outcome of the proceeding,” he said. “We think just the opposite is true. From the perspective of the defendant, there is no stronger evidence than an alibi witness.”
Whether Syed’s legal team will continue to fight this ruling in court or not, the case is sure to be re-litigated once more in the court of public opinion: The Case Against Adnan Syed, a four-part documentary series, will premiere on HBO on Sunday.