As the true-life mystery podcast "Serial" continues to captivate millions, an appeal attempting to throw out the life sentence of the convicted murderer at the story's center is winding its way through court.
The Maryland attorney general's office and state prosecutors were granted an extension last week to offer opinions on whether Adnan Syed received effective legal counsel when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1999 killing of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
Syed, now 34, is serving a life sentence in a Western Maryland state prison. A jury convicted him in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment after prosecutors alleged he strangled his Woodlawn High School classmate because he was jealous that she was dating someone else.
Much of the case hinged on testimony from a man prosecutors said helped Syed 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," has brought attention to the case as its producers have raised questions about Syed's conviction.
Among the questions: Syed’s defense attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, resigned after the state Court of Appeals ordered her “disbarred by consent” in 2001 after a lawyer found that clients’ money that should have been kept in a trust account had gone missing. Gutierrez, considered an accomplished and aggressive defense attorney around Baltimore, resigned, saying she was too ill to practice law or fight the disbarment, as well as mounting complaints that clients had paid her for work she did not do. She died of a heart attack in 2004.
Syed's appeal centers on whether Gutierrez failed him when he said she did not investigate a "credible alibi witness" who had seen him at the time of the crime, according to the appeal. That witness, a classmate named Asia McClain, had written Syed a letter saying she had seen him at the Woodlawn branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on Jan. 13, 1999, the day Lee disappeared after school.
Syed's attorney for the appeal, C. Justin Brown, also questions whether Gutierrez failed Syed by not following up on his request to inquire if prosecutors were offering a plea deal.
Syed believed he was entitled to a plea offer because other jail detainees had asked him repeatedly “what his offer was,” as if it were an option all defendants could consider.
“Another reason was that Syed was concerned about the difficulty of proving exactly where he was at the time of the murder, particularly because Gutierrez had told him nothing came of the Asia McClain lead,” the appeal said.
In a post-conviction hearing, the state's lead prosecutor backed Syed's contention, testifying that Gutierrez had never approached him to seek a plea offer, the appeal said.
On Sept. 10, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals took interest and asked the state to weigh in on whether prosecutors believe Syed received ineffective counsel. Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser gave the state until Nov. 14, to respond but prosecutors were granted an extension and now have until Jan. 14.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office and the Maryland attorney general's office both declined to comment because of pending litigation.
"This American Life" releases episodes of "Serial" every Thursday. Radio producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, spent more than a year reinvestigating the case with contributions from The Sun. The podcast has been downloaded more than 5 million times from iTunes, according to the iTunes podcasts Twitter account. It was the fastest podcast to ever reach that mark, iTunes said.