U.S. appeals court upholds new trial for Serial podcast subject Adnan Syed

A Maryland appeals court on Thursday upheld a ruling granting a new trial to a man whose conviction in the murder of his high school sweetheart became the subject of the popular podcast Serial.

Adnan Syed was convicted in 2000 of killing Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park. He was 17 at the time.

Syed’s story was widely publicized in the 2014 Serial podcast, which cast doubt on his guilt. The show attracted millions of listeners and shattered podcast records.

A lower court judge vacated Syed’s conviction in 2016, citing his attorney’s failure to cross-examine a key witness. Prosecutors appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state’s intermediate appeals court.

Syed’s lawyer, C. Justin Brown, said he is pleased by the ruling.

“If the state is so confident in their case, and if they’re so confident that Syed is guilty, they should just try the case. We’re ready to try the case,” Brown said.

Prosecutors declined to say whether they will appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court.

“We are currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” Raquel Coombs, a spokesperson for the Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said in an email.

In a 2-1 ruling, the three-judge appeals court panel agreed with Syed’s current lawyer that his trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate a potential alibi witness who said she saw Syed at a public library at the time the state claimed Syed killed Hae.

Syed’s lawyer C. Justin Brown, right, said he is pleased by the ruling. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record via AP)

The panel said in its written decision that if testimony from Asia McClain had been presented to the jury, it would have “directly contradicted the State’s theory of when Syed had the opportunity and did murder Hae” and could have created reasonable doubt in at least one juror’s mind and led to a different outcome.

“In considering the totality of the evidence at Syed’s trial with the potential impact of McClain’s alibi testimony, this Court holds that there is a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel’s deficient performance, the result of Syed’s trial would have been different,” Chief Judge Patrick Woodward wrote for the majority.

During a hearing in June, Thiru Vignarajah, a special assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the state, said it was reasonable not to seek out McClain because Syed’s lawyer was focused on an alibi placing him at Woodlawn High School, not the library.

Adnan Syed was convicted in 2000 of killing Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park. He was 17 at the time. (Courtesy of This American Life/NPR)

“It’s the kind of thing that the defence attorney would have to make a judgment about,” he said.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff disagreed with the majority, saying Syed had failed to overcome the presumption that his trial lawyer’s failure to contact McClain was based on reasonable trial strategy. Graeff said she would have reversed the lower court’s ruling granting Syed a new trial.

Podcast built ‘groundswell of support’

Syed has been behind bars since his arrest in February 1999.

Brown said that after Syed learned the court had upheld the ruling granting him a new trial, he wanted to “convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart for all those people who have supported him this long and all those people who have believed in him.”

Brown said Serial had an enormous impact on the case, generating attention that helped Syed’s defence team locate McClain and bring her to Baltimore for a post-conviction hearing.

“And Serial has also helped to build this groundswell of support for us and for Adnan and for the case, and that has really fuelled these efforts and allowed us to keep fighting on the way that we have,” Brown said.


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