Adnan Syed Granted Post-Conviction Hearing

By Criminal Defense Attorney Kush Arora

After the podcast “Serial” became a sensation in 2014, Adnan Syed became a symbol of the possible injustices that exist surrounding the criminal justice system in the United States. After serving over 15 years of his life sentence, Syed’s new legal team was able to convince Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch in November to grant a post conviction proceeding to present new evidence that has surfaced pertaining to the case.

Background

In 2000, Adnan Syed was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the death of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Syed was found guilty based on information from a cell phone tower that placed Syed near Leakin Park in Baltimore (where Lee’s body was found), as well as witness Jay Wild’s testimony that he was with Syed when the body was buried.

This American Life created the podcast Serial, which tells the story of Lee’s death and Syed’s subsequent trial. The host, Sarah Koenig, based this non-fiction story on boxes of legal documents and investigator notes, oral testimony from the trial, and interviews with witnesses she could find to gain an understanding of what happened to Hae Min Lee.

Koenig’s extensive research was revealed on Serial, which left many questioning whether the jury and public were aware of the true story at the time of the trial, whether the prosecution could establish that Syed was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether Syed had adequate legal representation at his trial.

Recent Developments

Many would agree that Serial played a role in Judge Welch’s decision to grant a post conviction proceeding. The radio series helped renew alibi witness Asia McClain’s interest in providing testimony that she was with Syed at the time of Lee’s death. In addition, her affidavit included a statement that she was never contacted by Syed’s defense attorney to testify at the trial. The affidavit provided by Ms. McClain and an additional affidavit provided from a cell phone expert were two crucial pieces of evidence used to petition for a post-conviction hearing.

The cell phone affidavit was provided by Abraham Waranowitz, a former AT&T engineer and current cell phone expert. Although he testified in Syed’s original trial, he recently filed an affidavit with the court that focuses on how the prosecution failed to provide him with the last page of Syed’s cell phone records. This page apparently included a disclaimer that noted the unreliability of data collected from the cell phone tower.

If Judge Welch finds during this post conviction proceeding that Syed’s attorney Christina Gutierrez, who has passed away since the conclusion of the trial, failed to provide him with sufficient legal representation, then Syed will be granted a new trial. In addition, Syed’s new counsel may seek to provide evidence that the prosecution’s main witness, Jay Wild, is not a credible witness and has presented a new story since the conclusion of the trial and the release of Serial.

Significance and Implications

Although a post-conviction hearing is not the same as a retrial, based on the new evidence that is presented, the judge may grant a new trial. Judge Welch feels that it was in the best interest of the prosecution and defense to grant the post-conviction proceeding, and although it is too early to speculate about the outcome of this hearing, it is safe to say that a new trial is not outside the realm of possibility.

Kush Arora leads our D.C.-based law firm’s Maryland criminal defense practice group.