‘Serial’ subject Adnan Syed’s conviction reinstated by Maryland court

BALTIMORE — Maryland’s highest court has determined that Adnan Syed is not deserving of a new trial, reversing the opinion of a lower appellate court and reinstating Syed’s conviction in the nearly 20-year-old murder case that shot to international prominence as the subject of the “Serial” podcast.

The Court of Appeals, on a 4-3 vote, agreed with the lower court that the performance of Syed’s counsel during his initial trial was “deficient,” but disagreed that the deficiency — which was “failing to investigate” the story of an alibi witness — had prejudiced Syed.

Instead, the court determined that Syed had waived his claim of ineffectual counsel. In doing so, it reversed the lower Court of Special Appeals’ decision, and remanded the case back down to that court to reverse a judgment granting him a new trial.

“We are devastated by the Court of Appeals’ decision but we will not give up on Adnan Syed,” Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney, said in a statement. “Our criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform. The obstacles to getting a new trial are simply too great.”

Brown told The Sun that Syed’s team believes there are “at least three other avenues of relief” that they would be exploring in the coming weeks. He declined to discuss what form those options might take.

Syed was convicted 19 years ago of killing his former girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee. The case became an international hit podcast in 2014 with “Serial,” and a four-part documentary series on the case is set to premiere Sunday.

Lee disappeared on Jan. 13, 1999. Her body was found almost a month later buried in the city’s Leakin Park. Syed has been serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison ever since.

Syed appealed his conviction on the grounds his attorney neglected to call a key witness. He also questioned the reliability of cellphone evidence used to place him at the spot where Lee’s body was found.

In 2016, a Baltimore judge vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The state appealed, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court ruling.

The state appealed again. Last July, the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed to consider whether to reinstate Syed’s murder conviction.

The high court reviewed whether Syed’s attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, was wrong to pursue an alibi strategy without speaking to one potential witness. Asia McClain Chapman claimed she saw Syed at the Woodlawn library during the time that prosecutors said Lee was killed.

Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy Maryland attorney general who argued on behalf of the state, said the records didn’t indicate why Gutierrez chose not to investigate McClain’s claim. He argued that defense strategy may have been one reason. Syed had said nothing to police about going to the library, so McClain’s story would not have been consistent with his.

Furthermore, Vignarajah argued if Syed’s conviction was vacated it would create a precedent that would require any defense attorney to contact any potential witness, regardless of their merits. In the absence of an explanation, he said, the court must presume the reasonableness of Gutierrez’s actions.

Cate Stetson, the appellate attorney, argued Syed had asked Gutierrez to follow up on McClain’s claim. Stetson argued the attorney had failed her client by not calling the witness — a violation of his right to effective counsel.

“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,” Brown said Friday. “We think just the opposite is true. From the perspective of the defendant, there is no stronger evidence than an alibi witness.”

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