In 2003, three years into his lifelong prison sentence, Adnan Syed directly appealed the trial court that convicted him for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. It didn’t work. After ten years in prison, Syed, who was 18 at the time of the murder, filed for “post-conviction relief,” this time alleging that his trial attorney Cristina Gutierrez gave him “ineffective counsel.” That didn’t work either.
But Syed, who became a sensation after the hit podcast “Serial” investigated his case, appealed that second decision and in June, the Maryland Court of Appeals will hear arguments that Gutierrez gave Syed “ineffective counsel.” This time, Syed has a statement from woman named Asia McClain who claims Syed was with her during the time of the murder. Back when Syed was on trial, his lawyer Cristina Gutierrez never reached out to McClain to testify.
Will the third attempt to clear his name work? To help answer your questions on the case, PBS NewsHour spoke to C. Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney, Rabia Chaudry, lawyer and advocate for Syed, and Andrew Levy, adjunct professor at University of Maryland School of Law and partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP.
How is this different from Adnan Syed’s other appeals?
A new written statement from a woman named Asia McClain gives Adnan Syed an alibi. Because his lawyer never contacted McClain during his original trial, Syed hopes to use McClain’s statement to prove that he had “ineffective counsel” and get a new trial.
“The court can now look at all of Asia’s documents, including the new statements, and then decide,” Rabia Chaudry told NewsHour.
McClain gave Syed an alibi? Why didn’t she speak up before?
There are conflicting reports on why McClain didn’t step forward until now. In a recent interview with the Blaze, McClain claimed that Syed’s prosecutor discouraged her from testifying. Syed’s prosecutor Kevin Urick denies McClain’s claims.
Now McClain has written a second affidavit to reflect this, which is the crux of Syed’s appeal in June.
What happens between now and the trial?
Syed will file a brief by March 16. In this brief, he will make the argument that he had “ineffective counsel” and is entitled to a new case. The state will have a month to respond and they must make their case against Syed’s claim by April 16. Syed will have a chance to respond to the state’s brief. This last “reply brief” isn’t all that important, said lawyer Andrew Levy, but “conscientious lawyers are obligated to file them because you don’t want to miss an opportunity to make your case.”
What are some possible outcomes? Could Syed be released from prison?
Not quite. According to Levy, there are three possible outcomes:
- The panel of judges could deny the appeal. They could say to Syed, “You had a fair trial” or “Your lawyer was fine.” Or even if his lawyer did screw up, it didn’t hurt you in court.
- The judges could decide Syed’s appeal has merit and order a new trial. If that happens, the state could appeal as well and the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s supreme court) would decide the case afresh.
- If the judges are somewhere in between, Syed’s lawyer also requested that the case be remanded to the trial court for further fact finding with McClain as a new witness. According to Levy, this move is different from a new trial and is rather unusual. “A new trial focuses on if he’s guilty or not guilty. A remand would delay the final resolution on the merit of his appeal.”
What’s the “best case scenario” for Syed?
“The first thing we’re asking the court to do is grant Adnan a new trial,” said Syed’s attorney C. Justin Brown. “We want him to get a new trial and a fair trial. That’s the focus of our efforts right now.”
Chaudry, who has advocated for Syed for decades agrees.
“I don’t really have any fear of going to a new trial,” she said. “I don’t think [the state has] anything to win. There’s just no way, there’s nothing left for them to prosecute him on.”
How can Syed achieve this in court?
To win on the claim of “ineffective counsel,” Syed must prove two things, said Levy: that his original lawyer “screwed up” and that he was hurt by her failure to do what she should have done.
What about all the DNA evidence and the cell phone records?
You must be a true “Serial” fan. Syed is arguing that he didn’t have a proper defense and his best evidence for that is that his lawyer didn’t contact McClain. Extra details like the saliva left on a brandy bottle at the crime scene won’t be helpful unless Syed wins another trial.
In the meantime, The Innocence Project is looking into this additional evidence.
Has all the attention on the case been good for Syed?
Chaudry says yes.
“Without the attention, it would have been the end of the road,” she said. “The post-conviction appeal only happened because of the attention. Jay gave a new interview, Asia came back, The Innocence Project got involved. None of this would have happened.”