Adnan Syed is getting a new trial. Today, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (COSA) delivered the ruling Serial fans have been waiting on for more than a year, affirming a lower court’s decision to overturn Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Syed, who was 17 at the time and has maintained his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison in 2000. His case caught international attention in 2014 when it became the subject of the first season of the hit podcast Serial.
Syed’s conviction was overturned in June 2016 by retired Circuit Court judge Martin Welch, but the Attorney General’s Office quickly appealed the ruling. Today’s decision affirms Syed’s right to a new trial, but based on an issue that the Circuit Court had considered and ultimately rejected – that Syed’s trial attorney had demonstrated “deficient performance” and “prejudiced Syed’s defense” by failing to pursue alibi witness Asia McClain.
McClain was a classmate of Syed and Lee’s at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore; at a post-conviction relief hearing in February 2016, McClain testified that she saw and spoke with Syed at the library during the time period when prosecutors claimed the murder occured. McClain sent Syed two letters shortly after his arrest and contacted his family; Syed’s trial attorney, the late Cristina Gutierrez, made no effort to speak to McClain, let alone call her as a witness at his trial.
In COSA’s 138-page ruling Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward wrote, “There is a reasonable probability that McClain’s alibi testimony would have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed’s involvement [in] Hae’s murder, and thus ‘the result of the proceedings would have been different.'”
The Circuit Court’s decision to throw out Syed’s conviction was based on a second issue, raised at the same proceeding, related to the reliability of cellphone tower evidence. In their ruling today, COSA did not address the substance of Judge Welch’s decision or the evidence presented by both sides at the February 2016 hearing; they did nullify Welch’s ruling on this issue, however, agreeing with the state that Syed had waived his right to raise his claims about the reliability of the cellphone tower evidence because he didn’t bring it up during an early appeal, when he initially had the chance.
Confusing, yes, but COSA’s decision comes down to this: “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. The instant case will be remanded for a new trial on all charges against Syed.”
Speaking to reporters from his office in downtown Baltimore, Syed’s attorney, C. Justin Brown, called the decision by COSA “incredible” and said that he and his client are “thrilled.” “It’s been a really long wait, and that’s been hard and stressful, not just for us but for Adnan, who has now been in prison for 19 years, going on 20 years. I firmly believe that he is innocent and our goal is to get him out of prison.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, meanwhile, says his office is “currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps.” They could still appeal the ruling to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals.