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Adnan Syed, the subject of the popular podcast "Serial" who was convicted in 2000 for killing his ex-girlfriend when he was a teenager, has been granted an appeal.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals approved Syed's application for leave to appeal on Friday, which claimed his attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, was ineffective. The rare ruling gives Syed a new start to challenge his murder conviction.

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

The Court of Special Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in June.

Syed, now 33, is serving a life sentence in a Western Maryland state prison after being convicted in 2000 of killing his Woodlawn High School classmate and ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in January 1999. He appealed but his request was denied in Baltimore Circuit Court a few years ago.

Last year, Brown filed an application to get that denial vacated with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He argued that Syed had received ineffective counsel during trial from a lawyer who did not check out an alibi or listen to his pre-trial requests including asking the state if prosecutors were offering him a plea deal.

The state Attorney General's Office fought this request but on Friday the Court of Special Appeals sided with Syed. A spokesman for the Attorney General declined to comment on Saturday because the case was ongoing.

The murder case against Syed hinged on testimony from a man prosecutors said helped him bury Lee's body in Leakin Park. There were no eyewitnesses or physical evidence tying Syed to the murder. "Serial," a multi-episode 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 re-investigating Lee's homicide. Millions downloaded the 12-episode podcast produced by former Baltimore Sun reporter and "This American Life" radio producer Sarah Koenig.

Among Syed's contentions for a new trial is an alibi presented by Asia McClain, a classmate of both Syed and Lee, who challenges the timeline Baltimore prosecutors used to prove that Syed strangled Lee to death after school on Jan. 13, 1999. McClain's testimony wasn't heard at Syed's 2000 trial, when a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. She has sworn in an affadavit that she saw Syed at the Woodlawn branch public library at the time prosecutors allege the killing took place.

Syed's attorney at the time did not call her as a witness. That attorney, Gutierrez, died in 2004 and it's unclear why she never spoke to McClain.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled Syed needs to file formal briefings of his appeal arguments by March 16. The State Attorney General's Office has until April 16 to file briefings opposing the appeal. In June, the court could hear oral arguments and order a new trial or deny Syed one. The judges could also send the appeals case back to circuit court.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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