New Trial Upheld for Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’
Posted March 29, 2018 11:13 p.m. EDT
Updated March 29, 2018 11:18 p.m. EDT
An appeals panel on Thursday vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed, whose case was chronicled in the first season of the hit podcast “Serial,” and ruled that he should be granted a new trial on all charges.
Syed was convicted in 2000 of the first-degree murder and kidnapping of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
In the ruling, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said he had received ineffective legal counsel at his trial because his original lawyer had failed to call a witness whose testimony, if believed, “would have made it impossible for Syed to have murdered Hae.”
“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,” the panel wrote. “The instant case will be remanded for a new trial on all charges against Syed.”
Syed’s new lawyer, Justin Brown, said both he and Syed were “thrilled” with the panel’s decision.
At a news conference, he said Syed “asked me to convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart to all those who have supported him and believed in him.”
The accounts by the new witness, and other evidence seeming to cast doubt on the conviction, were the focus of “Serial,” which was a wildly successful podcast in 2014 and popularized the format for a general audience.
The 12-episode series featured Sarah Koenig, a former producer with the weekly public radio program “This American Life,” telling the story of the killing, investigation and trial in a conversational narrative with interviews. It was downloaded more than 175 million times and won a Peabody Award.
Syed’s new lawyer, Justin Brown, said he had been unable to locate the witness, Asia McClain, until the “Serial” team began investigating Syed’s story. He said the podcast had been “enormously helpful” in pursuing justice for his client.
“'Serial’ kind of shook the trees, and that enabled us to get in contact with Asia McClain and bring her to Baltimore for the post conviction hearing two years ago,” Brown said at a news conference Thursday. “'Serial’ has also helped build this groundswell of support for us and for Adnan and for the case, and that has fueled these efforts and helped us to fight on as we have.”
McClain sent Syed two letters after he was arrested in 1999 stating that she had seen him at Woodlawn Public Library at the time that Lee was killed. Syed asked his lawyer, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, to contact McClain. She said she had “and nothing had come of it,” the panel said.
After Syed was convicted, it was determined that Gutierrez had not in fact contacted McClain.
A friend of Syed’s, a law student named Rabia Chaudry, independently reached out to McClain, who signed an affidavit saying that she had seen Syed at the Woodlawn Public Library at the time that Lee was killed.
Gutierrez’s failure to interview or contact McClain formed a key part of Syed’s argument that she had been negligent in her defense of him. Gutierrez died in 2004.
After the podcast drew attention to the case, Syed was granted a retrial in 2016 by Judge Martin P. Welch of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.
The state appealed that ruling to the Court of Special Appeals.
He has served 16 years of a life sentence after being convicted in 2000, but has maintained his innocence for almost two decades.
Lee was last seen on Jan. 13, 1999, as she was leaving school. A few weeks later, a passer-by found her body partially buried in a shallow grave in a park in West Baltimore, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The Sun said Syed had told the police that he and Lee dated as high school students but kept their relationship secret because of cultural differences between their families. They broke up in 1998 and Lee later began dating another man.
Lee’s mother, Youn Wha Kim, took the stand at Syed’s sentencing hearing in 2000, telling the court that though she wanted to, she did not think she could bring herself to forgive Syed for her daughter’s death, The Sun reported at the time.
“When I die, my daughter will die with me,” she told the court. “As long as I live, my daughter is buried in my heart.”