Back in February, an article posted to our blog detailed how the popular podcast Serial’s Adnan Syed was granted a post-conviction relief hearing. Well, Syed supporters, rejoice—the podcast’s protagonist has now been granted a new trial. On Thursday, June 30, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin Welch overturned Syed’s conviction, granting him a new trial on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.
During his trial in 1999, the State’s evidence against him included call records that are now known to be unreliable, the inconsistent statements and testimony of star witness Jay Wilds, and Syed’s vague memory of the day of the murder and failure to provide an alibi. The State also raised a questionable claim that Syed had motive to kill his ex-girlfriend because he was angry that she had a new boyfriend and presented a select few entries from her diary that may have suggested “intimate partner violence” and that Syed was possessive while they were dating. Those claims were not supported by expert testimony, however, and no other evidence or witness testimony corroborated them either. Despite the State’s circumstantial evidence, no witnesses placing them together around the time of the disappearance and murder, and a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime, Syed was convicted in 2000 for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
At the February hearing, Syed’s attorneys presented three arguments as to why their client should be granted post-conviction relief, the first two of which were denied. The first request focused on how Syed’s original trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to provide effective counsel when she neglected to contact a potential alibi witness. Asia McClain Chapman had sent two letters to Syed following his arrest, claiming that she, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s friend had all seen him at a public library around the time that the State alleges Syed murdered Lee. She also claims that she remembers speaking with him. Although Syed handed that information over to Gutierrez, the potential alibi witness said no attorney ever contacted her. In his opinion, Welch wrote that while Gutierrez did err in not contacting McClain, this did not prejudice the defense nor would it have affected the verdict because the State’s case was not centered on the time of the murder.
The defense’s second request for post-conviction relief argued that a Brady violation occurred because the State failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence when they presented Syed’s cell phone records during trial, but did not include a fax cover sheet that addressed the reliability of cell tower location evidence. The State’s case rested on Wilds’ testimony coupled with phone records showing two incoming calls that prosecutors used to place Syed in the park where Lee’s body was found at the time she was buried. The fax cover sheet, however, contained a disclaimer that indicated “incoming calls are not reliable for determining location.” Welch ultimately agreed with the State though, writing that Syed’s right to raise a Brady violation was waived because he had the opportunity to do so in prior court proceedings.
The third argument presented by Syed’s attorneys is what won him a new trial. The defense claimed that Gutierrez provided ineffective assistance of counsel because she failed to cross-examine Abraham Waranowitz, the State’s cell tower expert witness, about the reliability of cell tower location evidence using the disclaimer that was not included with Syed’s cell phone records. During the trial in 1999, Waranowitz testified that a person’s approximate location during a phone call could be determined using call records to pinpoint which cell tower was pinged during the call. In 2015, however, Waranowitz signed an affidavit retracting his original testimony, stating that the prosecutor did not make him aware of the disclaimer regarding the reliability of incoming calls for determining location, which would have affected his testimony since he was not given the proper instructions for analyzing Syed’s call records. During the February hearing, the State again argued that like the defense’s allegation of a Brady violation, the defendant did not raise the issue in prior proceedings and therefore waived his right to challenge Gutierrez’s representation of him. Welch wrote that although Syed did fail to address his original trial attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel in prior proceedings, he waived the right without “intelligently and knowingly” doing so, and thus vacated his conviction and granted the Serial star a new trial.
In regards to Serial, Welch wrote that despite the case’s popularity due to the podcast, he did his best to consider the merits of the Syed’s request for post-conviction relief like he would in any other case. Justin Brown, one of Syed’s attorneys, however, credited the podcast with the outcome of the hearing, stating that they would not be where they are today without it.
Not everyone is happy with Welch’s decision, though, especially Lee’s family members. In a statement issued by the family, they expressed disappointment with the judge’s ruling, stating that they are still grieving and believe that Syed is guilty.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General said the State plans to appeal Welch’s decision, and according to Brown, has 30 days to decide what they will do next. Brown also stated that regardless of what the State chooses to do next, the defense has started preparing for retrial anyways, including partnering with Hogan Lovells—a major law firm that agreed to provide their extensive experience with trials and innocence cases pro-bono. In addition, Brown said that his client should be allowed out of prison on bail because he not a flight risk or a danger to the community, and although it has not yet been determined, the defense team might pursue a bail hearing for Syed.