Adnan Syed, the man whose murder conviction became the subject of the wildly popular Serial podcast, was granted a new trial by Maryland’s second-highest court of appeals last week. Whether that trial happens, however, still remains in limbo.
Syed has been behind bars since 1999 when he was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The two were students at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore at the time. His trial in 2000 resulted in a conviction and he received a life sentence. But Serial brought renewed attention to the case and Syed’s legal team argued that he did not get a proper defence by his original counsel. The fight to overturn Syed’s conviction has taken a circuitous route through the US courts since 2014. The decision issued by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on last week is the best sign yet that Syed will get a new trial.
The 138-page opinion agreed with Syed’s claim that his original defence wasn’t sufficient. Specifically, Syed’s new lawyers maintain that his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, should have cross-examined an expert witness for the prosecution about the reliability of mobile tower location data that was used as evidence against their client. The prosecution argued that the mobile phone data presented at trial placed Syed at the site that Hae Min Lee was found buried.
The judge also agreed that Syed’s defence failed to provide her client with an alibi witness. At the 2016 post-conviction hearing, Asia McClain Chapman, one of Syed’s classmates, told the court that she saw him at the Woodlawn library at the time that Lee was said to have been murdered. “I haven’t seen a single case in which an attorney failed to contact an alibi witness in which deficiency was not found,” Syed’s attorney, C. Justin Brown, told the appeals court at a hearing last June.
In last week’s opinion, 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 State of Maryland has opposed the overturning of Syed’s conviction and in 2017 it appealed a lower court’s decision to grant a new trial. Last week’s ruling could mean that Syed will have another shot at freedom, or it might mean that prosecutors take the case to Maryland’s Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state.