On Monday, a court order was issued in Baltimore that might ultimately help push the case of Adnan Syed, subject of the wildly popular podcast Serial, a bit closer to a new trial by potentially introducing a new alibi.
Syed, who was convicted of murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment in 2000, received a stay of appeal. Just as important, his request for a remand to the circuit court was granted, according to the order written by Peter B. Krauser, chief judge on the panel that's been dealing with the podcast protagonist's latest push for salvation.
Serial, which reportedly amassed over 40 million downloads and seems to have inspired nearly that many thinkpieces, details the prosecution's account of events, and the holes therein. Syed was alleged to have strangled his ex-girlfriend Hae-Min Lee in her car after school in 1999, burying the body in a nearby park. He's now serving a life sentence. (A new podcast called Undisclosed is continuing his story, although that podcast is produced by advocates for Syed rather than traditional journalists.)
In February, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals surprised some legal observers when it granted Syed a hearing, which is still slated for sometime this spring. But the latest decision throws a bit of a wrench in that timeline.
"This is likely to delay the Court of Special Appeals review of the post-conviction argument," attorney Douglas Colbert told VICE. Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, was one of the lawyers who worked on Syed's behalf shortly after his initial arrest. "The court wants to proceed with the utmost care in making this decision, and does not want to rush something which has created a great deal of interest in whether or not Mr. Syed received a fair trial," he explained.Watch: For more on Baltimore, check out Noisey's documentary.
The new court order cites two potential problems with the counsel Syed received during his original trial, which his legal team is making the crux of the bid for a fresh appeal. The first concerns whether Syed's original defense lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, "rendered ineffective assistance" when she didn't interview a woman named Asia McClain—something the podcast helped bring to light when host Sarah Koenig tracked down McClain, who claimed to have talked to Syed in their school library during the exact time the prosecution indicated murder took place. McClain seemed blindsided by the potential significance of this new alibi, telling Koenig, "It would be nice if there was some technicality that then would prove his innocence."
"But I think, I think, 'Asia, like, you might be that technicality,'" Koenig said in the podcast.
The second half of the appeal centers on whether Gutierrez should have pursued a plea deal, and whether she might have actually lied to Syed about the possibility of obtaining one. Defense attorneys can't unilaterally pass on a possible plea bargain, particularly when the client voices the desire to entertain negotiations. "Once I'm instructed, I must report back to the client, and in this situation it's alleged that the defense never spoke to Assistant State's attorney [Kevin] Urick," Colbert said.
Colbert himself never dealt with Syed's actual defense, instead just counseling him at his bail hearing.
"The appeals court is saying, 'We want this information to be part of the post-conviction review,'" Colbert added.
Of course, the podcast centered largely on inconsistencies in the court testimony by Syed's friend Jay. Since that account formed the backbone of the case against Syed, fans of Serial argue staunchly for his innocence to this day. Those inconsistencies are almost certainly outside the scope of this appeal.
The court order pauses the appeal, and moves the proceedings over to a type of trial court. The trial judge must make what Colbert called "factual findings," which will then be delivered to the Court of Special Appeals, which in turn will decide whether Syed's lawyer botched his original case. That might ultimately lead to a new trial, though it's important to remember that even if the defense lawyers are ruled to have made mistakes, that wouldn't necessarily result in an overturned conviction.
"You can make an error, but it may not be as serious as to impinge on someone's constitutional right to effective assistance," Colbert said, before adding, "These two situations though, in my opinion, are quite serious."
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