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New trial for 'Serial' subject Adnan Syed upheld by Maryland appeals court

Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Thursday that “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed should receive a new trial in the killing of Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee.

The Court of Special Appeals’ opinion upheld a lower court’s decision to overturn Syed’s 2000 conviction in the case, sending it back to Circuit Court for a retrial there.

The opinion, which found Syed’s previous counsel had failed him in deciding not to call a key alibi witness at his trial two decades ago, could be appealed to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. That would mean many more months before Syed finds out whether his conviction will remain or if he will get a new trial.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, which represents the state in the case, said that it is “currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” including whether to appeal. It has 30 days to do so.

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C. Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney, called the higher court’s opinion “incredible.”

“It’s been a really long wait, and that’s been hard and it’s been stressful, obviously not just for us but for Adnan, who’s now been in prison for 19 years, going on 20 years,” Brown said. “I firmly believe that he is innocent, and our goal is to get him out of prison.”

Brown said he spoke to Syed after the opinion came down, and that Syed asked him “to convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart for all those people who supported him this long, and all those people who have believed in him” — including his family and those who have championed his cause since his case was spotlighted by “Serial.”

Syed was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison for the killing of his former girlfriend, Woodlawn High School classmate Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park.

Syed maintained his innocence, and his case attracted international attention in 2014 when it was featured on the “Serial” podcast, which was downloaded millions of times and prompted legions of listeners to scrutinize the case online.

Brown said Thursday that he would be discussing with Syed whether to file a motion requesting Syed’s release from prison pending his new trial. A similar motion failed after the lower court overturned Syed’s conviction.

Lee’s family could not be reached for comment on Thursday, though they expressed frustration when Syed was first granted a new trial in 2016.

“We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve,” the family said in a statement at the time. “We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”

In the court’s opinion Thursday, Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward wrote that a “deficient performance” by Syed’s attorney during his initial trial — namely, her failure to call a witness named Asia McClain — “prejudiced Syed’s defense.”

Woodward was joined in his opinion by Judge Alexander Wright Jr., while Judge Kathryn Graeff wrote a dissenting opinion.

Syed was granted a post-conviction hearing in February 2016, during which his new attorneys argued that his original counsel had failed to call McClain — now McClain Chapman — as an alibi witness. They also questioned the reliability of cellphone evidence used to place Syed at the spot where Lee's body was found.

Four months later, retired Judge Martin Welch, who had denied Syed's previous request for a new trial, vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge said questions about the cellphone tower evidence should have been raised by Syed's original team.

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The state appealed the lower court judge’s ruling. Syed's attorneys then filed a separate conditional appeal, asking the court to look at the alibi issue.

In the opinion Thursday, the court upheld the lower court’s decision to vacate Syed’s conviction, but on different grounds.

The higher court rejected the argument that the mishandling of cellphone tower evidence was grounds for a new trial, as the lower court had found. But it accepted the argument that Syed’s defense should have called McClain Chapman to the stand as an alibi witness, something the lower court had not accepted.

“It was essentially a flip-flop” of the lower court’s decision, but in Syed’s favor nonetheless, Brown said.

Woodward found that, “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 Court of Special Appeals had considered the case during a hearing last June.

There, judges had focused more on the alibi witness angle, questioning attorneys for Syed and the state attorney general's office about what weight they should give to McClain Chapman, who claimed to have seen Syed at the Woodlawn library when prosecutors said Lee was killed.

"How can you possibly evaluate an alibi witness without speaking to her?" Woodward asked during the state's presentation by Thiru Vignarajah, a special assistant attorney general.

Vignarajah referred questions to Frosh’s office on Thursday.

The judges asked Brown, Syed's current attorney, whether there was any case law that would establish that Syed’s attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective counsel to Syed because she did not speak to McClain. 

Graeff asked Brown whether it is a defense attorney's responsibility to speak to any possible alibi witness — to which Brown said yes.

In her dissent published alongside the court’s majority opinion issued Thursday, Graeff seemed to adopt the argument of the state that Gutierrez had good reason not to call McClain as a witness. Graeff noted records in the case, including a detective’s notes on communications between McClain and Syed, “indicate potential cause for concern regarding the trustworthiness of Ms. McClain’s alibi, and therefore, the reasonableness of counsel’s decision not to contact Ms. McClain or pursue her alibi.”

Graeff wrote that, “To the extent that Ms. McClain’s potential alibi could give the prosecution ammunition to argue that Syed and Ms. McClain were working together to falsify an alibi, it would be a reasonable decision not to contact Ms. McClain to pursue that alibi.”

Brown said that split opinions at the Court of Special Appeals, like the 2-1 split in Syed’s case, are probably more likely to be appealed again to the Court of Appeals. But he said he hopes the state does not appeal, and agrees to move forward with the retrial in Circuit Court.

“We hope that they will come to the conclusion that this has gone on for long enough,” he said. “Let’s take it to a jury in Baltimore city and let them decide if Adnan Syed is guilty or innocent.”

McClain Chapman, who wrote a book about the case, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But, she tweeted a couple hours after the opinion was posted that she had been traveling, had just arrived in Los Angeles, had turned on her phone and been “swamped with notifications and comments” about the ruling.

“Thanks for the support guys. Y'all rock!” she wrote. “Now let’s get this #AdnanSyed retrial done. #DontDoubtMyDetermination #whataboutadnan #retrial.”

Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and family friend of Syed who took the case to the creators of “Serial” and also wrote a book about it, tweeted, “WE WON WE WON WE WON WE WON!!!!!!!!!”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office would be tasked with prosecuting Syed were a retrial to move forward. Her office said it was reviewing the appeals court’s opinion on Thursday, but otherwise declined to comment.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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