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Court reopens appeal of Adnan Syed, subject of "Serial" podcast

The appeal of Adnan Syed, the subject of the “Serial” podcast, gets new life.

Adnan Syed, the incarcerated subject of the popular podcast "Serial," will get another shot at overturning his murder conviction and life sentence after a court granted his request to reopen his appeal.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals on Friday agreed to hear his case after two unsuccessful attempts to appeal his convictionover the past 12 years.

Syed's main argument is that his trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, provided him ineffective counsel, and Friday's court ruling gives him a chance to show the judges why he believes he should be granted a new trial.

"It's the first step in a pretty long process, but we're extremely happy," Syed's attorney, C. Justin Brown, said Saturday.

The Court of Special Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in Syed's case in June.

Syed's mother, Shamim Rahman, said she took phone calls all day Saturday from friends congratulating her on the ruling. Rahman said the family was thrilled but cautiously optimistic.

"Adnan says it's good news, but we're still praying for everything," she said. "We don't know what's next."

Syed, now 33, is serving a life sentence in a Western Maryland state prison after being convicted 15 years ago of killing his Woodlawn High School classmate and ex­girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, on Jan. 13, 1999.

Syed first appealed his conviction in 2003, but the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected his claims. In 2010, he filed for "post-conviction relief," raising questions about Gutierrez's defense. That request was denied by Baltimore's Circuit Court in January2014.

Weeks later, Brown challenged the denial in the Court of Special Appeals, which legal observers viewed as a long shot. But in September the court's Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser wanted to hear more about the case and asked the state to weigh in on Syed's belief that Gutierrez had failed him as a lawyer.

Syed argued that Gutierrez should have interviewed Asia McClain, a possible alibi witness, who has sworn in multiple affidavits that she saw him at a Woodlawn branch public library at the time prosecutors allege Lee was killed. Gutierrez never called McClain to testify at Syed's trial in 2000, when a jury found him guilty of first­degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment.

It remains unclear why. Gutierrez died of a heart attack in 2004.

Brown also contends that Gutierrez failed to listen to Syed and ask prosecutors about a possible plea deal before trial.

The state attorney general's office filed a response last month, arguing that Syed can't claim that his lawyer should have explored the possibility of a plea deal because he has never wavered in his claim of innocence.

David Nitkin, a spokesman for Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, declined to comment Saturday, citing a policy to not discuss pending cases.

The murder case against Syed hinged on testimony from a man prosecutors said helped him bury Lee's body in Leakin Park. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence linked Syed to the murder.

"Serial," a multi­episode podcast from the creators of the radio show "This American Life," brought international attention to the case after its producers spent a year and a half re­investigating Lee's homicide. Millions downloaded the 12­episode podcast produced by former Baltimore Sun reporter and "This American Life" contributor Sarah Koenig.

On Saturday, Koenig wrote about the appellate ruling on the "Serial" website.

"In Episode 10 of the podcast, I reported that this appeal was alive by a thread," Koenig wrote. "Now, I'd say it's more of a … well-made string, maybe. Like the nylon kind. Because it means that the Court of Special Appeals judges think the issues Adnan raised in his brief are worth considering. That's a pretty big hurdle for any appellant to clear."

Rabia Chaudry, a Syed family friend and attorney who first brought Syed's case to Koenig to investigate, celebrated the appellate court ruling and tweeted that "Adnan is getting closer to justice."

A legal fund she has set up online for Syed had raised more than $82,000 as of Saturday, most of the donations coming from podcast fans.

Syed now has until March 16 to file formal briefings with the Court of Special Appeals. The state attorney general's office has until April 16 to respond. Then the three judges on the court could hear oral arguments and order a new trial or deny Syed's request. The judges could also send the appeals case back to Circuit Court for evidentiary hearings.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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