With a major victory in hand, still a long road ahead for Adnan Syed

Here's what's next in the Adnan Syed case

Adnan Syed won a major victory in court this week when his murder conviction was vacated, but a long legal road likely lies ahead.

The 35-year-old, whose case was propelled to international attention by the "Serial" podcast, has been serving a life sentence since a jury convicted him in 2000 of the murder of his former girlfriend. With a state appeal likely, legal experts say a retrial could be more than a year away.

"Assuming the appellate court gets involved in this case, a retrial is not likely to happen very soon, and not likely to happen within a year," said Adam Ruther, a defense attorney and former Baltimore prosecutor.

The state could appeal a judge's decision ordering a new trial. In a statement, the Maryland attorney general's office said it will "defend what it believes is a valid conviction."

Syed's defense attorney, C. Justin Brown, said he will try to get his client, who is being held in a Western Maryland prison, freed on bail as the proceedings play out.

While "Serial" fans around the world were celebrating the court's decision, the family of victim Hae Min Lee spoke out Friday, expressing frustration with the ruling and the continued support for Syed by "Serial" fans.

"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 statement said. "We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.

"While we continue to put our faith in the courts and hope the decision will be reversed, we are very disappointed by the judge's decision. We remain thankful to the many, many people who have expressed their support for us, and to the state for standing by the true victims and for giving Hae Min Lee a voice."

Brown said Syed has been informed of the judge's ruling. "He's extremely happy about it, but he understands we still have a long way to go," Brown wrote on Twitter.

Syed's case already has a long legal history. His first trial ended in a mistrial. In a retrial in 2000, a jury convicted Syed of kidnapping and first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. His appeals failed.

After a hearing in 2014, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch denied his request for a new trial. Syed's attorneys appealed that denial to the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second-highest court, citing a potential alibi witness whose testimony the defense said should have been considered.

The appellate court handed the case back to Welch to explore the alibi issue, but Welch used his discretion to allow additional testimony about a dispute over cellphone tower evidence.

Syed's conviction was based in part on testimony by a friend who said he helped Syed bury Lee's body, along with cellphone tower evidence linking Syed's phone to the area.

After "Serial," a blogger and co-host of the popular offshoot podcast "Undisclosed" highlighted a fax cover sheet from AT&T that said cellphone tower location data from incoming calls was unreliable. The cellphone technician who testified at Syed's trial then said the fax cover sheet made him question his original testimony.

An FBI cellphone expert testified for the state at a second postconviction hearing, held in February, that the data was nevertheless reliable.

While the alibi witness, the original reason for reopening the postconviction proceedings, did not sway Welch, the judge said Syed's trial counsel should have pressed the cellphone issue and determined that he received ineffective counsel.

The Maryland attorney general's office has declined to comment on the ruling but issued a statement hinting at an appeal, saying that "there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts."

Ruther said the appellate court process could take months, and the losing side could ask the state's highest court to intervene. If Welch's decision is affirmed, only then would the lengthy pretrial process begin.

"Maryland has gotten a heck of an education in appellate criminal procedure lately," Ruther said, referring to other high-profile cases handled recently by the higher courts, including issues in the trials of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

Ruther said Syed does not have to wait until the appeals have played out to ask to be released on bail. Maryland's Post Conviction Procedure Act says a bail hearing can be held while the state is appealing, he said.

"A judge would have to weigh all the same factors that a judge would weigh when a person is charged with brand new charges," Ruther said, including the potential danger to the community and risk of flight.

It is nearly unheard of for someone charged with murder to be released on bail, though a judge's analysis will be "complicated by the fact that Syed has been imprisoned for 16 years," Ruther said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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