‘Serial’ Podcast Subject Gets Murder Conviction Tossed (1)

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By Jordan S. Rubin

The subject of the hit podcast “Serial” got his murder conviction vacated by a divided Maryland Court of Special Appeals March 29.

Adnan Syed’s case rose to national prominence thanks to the 2014 podcast, which explored his case and—some argued—cast doubt on his guilt.

The appeals court likewise tossed his convictions for kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment.

He was convicted in 2000 of those crimes in connection with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and sentenced to life plus 30 years.

Syed argued on appeal that his lawyer was ineffective for not contacting a potential alibi witness. He also challenged cell tower location information that the government used to show his alleged whereabouts.

A lower court previously ruled for Syed on grounds that his lawyer was ineffective for not properly challenging the cell tower data.

The special appeals court upheld that ruling, but on different grounds: the lawyer’s failure to investigate the alibi witness.

That witness “would have placed Syed at a location other than the scene of the crime at the exact time that the State claimed that Syed murdered Hae,” Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward wrote for the court.

If the jury believed the witness, that “would have made it impossible for Syed to have murdered Hae,” Woodward wrote.

The result didn’t surprise an attorney who had been following the case closely.

“This is the result I predicted,” Steven M. Klepper, a Maryland appellate attorney, told Bloomberg Law shortly after the decision came down.

The alibi issue is “the strongest issue” in the case, Klepper said.

Dissent: Alibi Failure Not Enough

Judge Alexander Wright Jr. joined Woodward’s opinion.

Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff dissented. Syed “failed to meet his burden” of proving his lawyer was ineffective for failing to pursue the alibi witness, she wrote.

“There may be good reasons for a reasonable attorney not to contact a potential alibi witness,” Graeff wrote.

She gave an example to support her point: “If the defense is that the defendant was in Maryland during the time a crime was committed in Virginia, defense counsel reasonably could conclude that there was no need to contact or follow up on a potential witness who said that he or she saw the defendant in California at the time of the crime.”

What’s Next?

Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, told Bloomberg Law that office is reviewing the decision “to determine next steps.”

Klepper, who authored an outside brief in support of Syed at an earlier point in the case, said there are a few options for the state.

He said it can take Syed to trial again, ask the special court of appeals to reconsider its ruling, or it could petition the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Klepper said it’s difficult to predict what will happen, but noted that it’s more likely statistically for the court of appeals to take the case if there’s a dissent, which there was here.

Then there’s always the chance ultimately of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Klepper said.

Syed’s attorney C. Justin Brown was not immediately available for comment after the decision.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

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Opinion available at src.bna.com/xq4.

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