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Adnan Syed case: Supreme Court extension offers hint at possible appeal strategy for 'Serial' subject

In 2000, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and was given a life sentence plus 30 years. In July 2016, Judge Martin P. Welch vacated Syed's conviction and ordered a new trial. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

The U.S. Supreme Court is giving Adnan Syed’s attorney another month to appeal the refusal by Maryland’s highest court to grant a new trial to the subject of the “Serial” podcast.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts this week granted the routine request by Syed’s appellate attorney, Catherine E. “Cate” Stetson, to extend the date for filing an appeal from July 18 to Aug. 19.

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The odds of the justices hearing the case, though, are stacked against Syed and his attorneys. Of the more than 7,000 cases petitioned to the Supreme Court each year, the court only takes up an average of only 2 percent.

Syed was convicted 19 years ago of killing Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School in western Baltimore County, and has been serving a life sentence.

Stetson’s extension request — which she filed because of her involvement in several other cases during June and July — hints at a possible legal strategy, should the justices choose to hear Syed’s appeal.

“This case presents an important question of federal law on which state and federal courts are now divided: whether trial counsel’s failure to investigate a credible, non-cumulative, and independent alibi witness is prejudicial under Strickland v. Washington,” Stetson wrote in her petition, citing the 1984 Supreme Court decision on ineffective counsel.

Stetson argued in the filing that the Maryland high court’s decision was at odds with “numerous state and federal courts.” The attorney with the Washington law firm of Hogan Lovells LLP did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“We will let the filing speak for itself,” said C. Justin Brown, Syed’s other attorney.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh declined to comment. Frosh’s office has defended Maryland in appeals by Syed and his attorneys.

The Maryland Court of Appeals decided in March that Syed should not receive a new trial and reinstated his murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Lee.

His attorneys argued Syed’s previous lawyer failed him by not calling an alibi witness, Asia McClain, who claimed to have seen him in the Woodlawn public library during the time of the killing.

But given the other evidence against him, “there is not a significant or substantial possibility that the verdict would have been different,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its 4-3 ruling.

The state’s high court in April declined a request by Syed’s attorneys to reconsider its decision, prompting the lawyers to announce plans to petition the Supreme Court.

The landmark 2014 podcast “Serial” re-examined the old case, raising questions and generating intrigue among hundreds of millions of listeners around the world.

Following the podcast’s release, Syed appealed his murder conviction, arguing that his lawyer at the time should have called McClain as a witness.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ordered Syed’s conviction tossed out last year. But the Court of Appeals reinstated the murder conviction after prosecutors appealed the lower court’s decision. Syed remains in prison.

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The case has received continued attention amid the appeals process — including a four-part documentary series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” released by HBO in March.

Lee was a Woodlawn senior when she was found strangled to death and buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Detectives pursued Syed after an anonymous tip and eventually charged him with killing her. Prosecutors said the then-17-year-old had murdered her out of jealousy after finding she was dating someone else.

No physical evidence linked Syed to the crime.

He had been convicted after a witness, Jay Wilds, said he helped Syed bury her body. Wilds’ testimony has been questioned over the years. Most recently, the documentary filmmakers said Wilds spoke to them and offered yet another account of the crime — one different from what he told police.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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