Sun reporter Justin George talks about his conversation with the son of Cristina Gutierrez, lawyer for Adnan Syed. (Baltimore Sun)
Roberto Gutierrez first heard about "Serial" from a friend who told him about the captivating podcast that raised questions about a 15-year-old murder case in his hometown and someone even closer to him — his late mother.
He tuned in to the series and heard the narrator describe how M. Cristina Gutierrez, once one of Baltimore's most respected criminal defense lawyers, did not focus on evidence that many now believe could have kept her client, Adnan Syed, from being sentenced to life in prison.
Roberto then saw rumors on social media that his mother was an alcoholic. Some speculated that she had thrown the case.
Gutierrez, who lives in Seattle, now says he wants to defend his mother and her legacy. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, he said he wants people to have a fuller picture of his mother, how she was dedicated to her job and that she was suffering from health problems at the time of the Syed case, which may have affected her decision-making.
The health issues, which included multiple sclerosis and diabetes, ultimately led to her death in 2004.
Syed has made Cristina Gutierrez the focal point of his argument for a new trial. In a filing with the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second-highest court, Syed contends she provided him "ineffective" legal counsel.
"If my mom didn't give him a good defense, I hope he gets a good defense," Roberto Gutierrez said. "I know that was her intention. She really loved her job."
Syed, now 34, is serving a life sentence in a Western Maryland prison after a jurors convicted him in the strangling death of his ex-girlfriend, fellow Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee, 18, on Jan. 13, 1999.
Sarah Koenig, a former Sun reporter, produced and narrated Serial, a podcast that's an offshoot of the "This American Life" public radio program. While working at The Sun, Koenig wrote about Cristina Gutierrez's disbarment and voluntary resignation from the bar in 2001, a year after she represented Syed.
Clients had complained that Gutierrez did not follow their instructions and lied to them about their cases. Investigators also found that clients' money in a trust account had gone missing. She did not fight the allegations.
In 2010, a U.S. district judge ruled that Gutierrez failed to offer John Joseph Merzbacher, a Catholic school teacher, a 10-year plea deal in a child rape case in the 1990s. The mistake formed the basis of his appeal and nearly set him free from a life sentence until an appellate court stepped in.
Syed's appeal is based on a similar claim. He said Gutierrez didn't speak to an alibi witness who could have cleared him. Instead, Syed said, she told him that she had "looked into it and nothing came out of it," according to a court filing.
Syed also asked Gutierrez to inquire about a possible plea deal. Syed wanted to consider his options in part because he knew his alibi was not going to be used, his court filing said. Syed said Gutierrez told him that prosecutors weren't offering a plea deal, but prosecutors say they never had such discussions.
"I'm not going to defend my mom if she didn't do her job," Roberto Gutierrez said. "If there is evidence in the trial that wasn't brought up, I think he definitely should get a retrial."
He said his mother's illness could have impaired her mentally. "But if she was coherent and she didn't use evidence in a case — there was probably a reason for that," he said.
Her fierceness was evident in an episode of Serial that included audio from Syed's trial. She could be heard questioning a witness in a shrill tone.
"She was one of those people who, if it looks like you are sunk in a criminal defense as a defendant, you wanted a pit bull and Cristina Gutierrez was who you wanted," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor.
She successfully defended a schoolteacher accused of having sex with a student and two mothers accused of killing their children. Gutierrez was the first Hispanic female who was counsel of record in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Warnken said.
It was one of two cases she tried before the high court, said Warnken, who worked on one of them and also taught Gutierrez.
One case pitted the state's authority to protect children against a mother's constitutional rights not to incriminate herself. Gutierrez represented a woman who didn't fully cooperate with social workers seeking to know the whereabouts of her son.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the woman could not use her Fifth Amendment right and that she had an obligation to allow authorities to see her son because she shared custody with the state.
Then a state court again asked about the boy's whereabouts. Gutierrez told her client not to answer — a bold position to stake, which state lawyers argued defied the Supreme Court ruling.
A Baltimore circuit judge held her client in contempt for seven years.
By the late 1990s, Roberto Gutierrez said, he believes his mother was suffering from the initial symptoms of multiple sclerosis. She wasn't diagnosed until about 2001.
If she was affected by the illness during Syed's case, her son said, she may not have realized it or was too stubborn to admit it.
Gutierrez, who is working on his master's degree in teaching at the University of Washington, said he chose cell biology and molecular genetics for his bachelor's degree in part because he wanted to learn more about diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
"That has a huge effect on a person's ability to think and her memory, her ability to make judgments," said Gutierrez, who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2010. "That's what my mom had, and toward the end of her career, she was definitely affected by that."
"You are driven by your work and you are starting to feel you have health issues, you naturally want to persevere through it," he added. "Your health gradually declines in memory, in mobility, in vision, in your ability to think, process information and recall knowledge and facts."
He said he wouldn't be surprised if the effects of the disease began in 1998, about the same time she moved her two children in with her parents in Towson. Gutierrez said his mother told them she had received death threats related to cases. But now he wonders if they moved because his mother knew her faculties were failing and needed help parenting.
"For my mother it gradually increased in terms of her ability to remember things," he said. "She was losing her vision. She wasn't able to walk. In 2003, she was in a wheelchair, she couldn't see out of one eye, she couldn't remember my name."
Warnken said he believes Gutierrez began to take on too many tough cases and everything "snowballed."
"Everybody wanted Cristina Gutierrez, and she couldn't say no. She wanted to do right for her clients. She wanted to do right for her kids … and she never got out from under," Warnken said.
He said "Serial" should not define her.
"Her legacy is going to be a mixed message," he said. "Here she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth for sure and by her bootstraps became one of the best and most feared criminal defense attorneys in the country, certainly this state. It's kind of sad that all this got away from her."
Roberto Gutierrez said his feelings about his relationship with his mother are complicated. She adopted him and his sister as a single mother. Because she worked so much, she was a great provider, Roberto said, but he wishes he saw more of her.
When he finally did, he said, she was dying. He spent Cristina Gutierrez's final months taking care of her.
As "Serial" aired last year, he said, he saw what he considered unfair accusations against his mother in comments on Serial's Facebook page. He said he sent Serial producers an email, hoping to give listeners a fuller picture of his mother, but it went unanswered.
"It's disheartening," he said. "Whenever entertainment is connected to real life, people don't remember it."
He said he enjoyed "Serial" overall, and found the episodes well-produced. And he doesn't mind when people ask if he was related to Cristina Gutierrez when he mentions his last name and that he's from Baltimore.
He just hopes that people know his mother cared deeply about her job and clients.
"My mom would never throw a case, and the cases that she lost, she was devastated by them," he said. "There's no doubt."