Maryland prosecutors oppose ruling that overturned 'Serial' subject Adnan Syed's conviction

State's attorneys from across Maryland say "sensationalized attention" led to bad appeal ruling.

State's attorneys from across Maryland have filed an amicus brief opposing an appellate court's decision to grant "Serial" podcast subject Adnan Syed a new trial, arguing the outsized attention on the case led to an improper ruling.

The brief calls Syed's successful post-conviction appeal "meritless," and says "sensationalized attention" surrounding the case was "fueled by supporters of a convicted murderer" and "should not bear on the just and proper resolution of this appeal," it says.

The brief is signed by the elected state's attorneys of every county in Maryland, except for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger. The coalition says it did not seek Mosby or Shellenberger's participation because the killing for which Syed is accused took place in their jurisdictions. Cecil County, where the case's original prosecutor now works, also did not sign the brief.

Last month, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association filed an amicus brief in favor of the defense, urging that a new trial was the "only satisfactory way to resolve the debate between the believers and doubters" and would restore confidence in the state justice system.

Syed's lead attorney, C. Justin Brown, said the prosecutors' filing was "another example of the extraordinary lengths [to which] the state is going to avoid retrying this case."

"If the state is so confident in its case, the state should do the right thing and give Syed a fair trial he never received the first time around," Brown said.

Syed was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for killing Woodlawn High School classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park.

After failed attempts to overturn his conviction, the case became the subject of the blockbuster "Serial" podcast, which raised questions about the case against him. Syed was granted a new hearing to present an alibi witness and attack cellphone tower evidence used at his trial. Judge Martin Welch overturned his conviction this summer.

The Maryland attorney general's office, which argued against Syed's petition, is now appealing Welch's ruling in the state's Court of Special Appeals.

Now other prosecutors are joining the attorney general's office.

"Before this case became a 'global phenomenon,' Mr. Syed's motion for a new trial, direct appeals, and post-conviction petitions were all correctly rejected," the prosecutors wrote.

They faulted the lower court's decision to grant Syed a new trial "based on a completely new claim" that Syed's trial attorney should have used "a boilerplate AT&T fax cover sheet" to attack state cellphone evidence that trial prosecutors said placed him near Leakin Park.

"No one, including all of the defendant's capable post-trial attorneys, made this argument until a lawyer who blogged about the case first suggested it after the 10-year statutory window expired," the prosecutors wrote.

The questions about the cellphone tower evidence had not been part of Syed's most recent petition for a new trial, but were allowed to be introduced and became the basis for Welch's ruling.

Susan Simpson, a co-host of a "Serial" offshoot podcast called "Undisclosed," discovered language on a fax cover sheet from AT&T that said data related to incoming calls was "unreliable." The cellphone technician who testified at Syed's trial said it caused him to reconsider his testimony.

The prosecutors say Welch made a "clear error."

"It happens," they wrote. "But when it does, it is the responsibility of the appellate courts to correct the error."

They said a retrial will not end the public debate over the case, and cases shouldn't be heard by assessing "who is louder."

"We are elected to pursue justice in every case by looking closely at the facts and faithfully applying the law, without passion or prejudice, and regardless of one side's public-relations campaign or the publicity swirling around a case on the internet, on television, or in the papers," they wrote. "Which is why it is rightly the Court of Special Appeals, not the court of public opinion, that must correct the lower court's error in granting Mr. Syed's petition for a new trial."

In a brief supporting the defense, appellate attorney Steve Klepper took a different view.

"Judge Welch's thoughtful, comprehensive opinion illustrates the time and resources it took to get this far. The post-conviction statute places great trust in the judgment and discretion of the circuit court," he wrote.

"A prompt retrial, with all witnesses still available, is the best way for the judiciary to remove any cloud over its processes. … The public interest strongly favors denial of the State's application and a prompt retrial, to promote public confidence in the Maryland criminal justice system."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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