In what has become a global case – thanks in large part to the podcasts of Serial and Undisclosed – the State v Adnan Syed court battle has taken on a life of its own. And tomorrow, the saga continues, as Mr. Syed returns to court – this time in Maryland’s highest court – to argue his innocence and the need for a new trial.
As most of our followers heard a few weeks ago on our DMVDaily Radio broadcast, the state had appealed an earlier decision by retired Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch, who after initially denying Syed’s first request for a new trial, ended up granting a second motion due to the questionable legal representation given to Syed during his initial trial, who had not questioned the seemingly unreliable cell tower data that helped convict him.
At the center of Welch’s ruling was the fact that Syed’s initial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, was negligent in her representation due to the fact that he [Judge Welch] believed that the evidence before him, regarding a fax letter by AT&T at the time of trial, questioning the reliability of the technology at the time, pinpointing Syed’s whereabouts; should have been cross-examined and brought to light during the initial trial.
Confused yet? Well in case you haven’t heard the Serial or Undisclosed podcast; or God forbid you haven’t heard the recent DMVDaily Radio Show featuring Rabia Chaudry and Amelia McDonnell-Parry, then let me try to explain the case in a nutshell (though its really not that simple).
On January 13, 1999, a young Woodlawn High student by the name of Hae Min Lee went missing, only to be found days later inside of Baltimore’s infamous Leakin Park. Lee was the former girlfriend of a young 17-year old Muslim student by the name of Adnan Syed, who was eventually accused of the killing of Lee by a former associate of his, Jay Wilds.
Wilds, an African American weed dealer in the area, told police that Syed had revealed to him that he killed Lee, and claimed that he unwillingly assisted Syed in disposing of the body in Leakin Park that evening. Wilds testified that Syed called him at 2:36 p.m. from a payphone at a Best Buy in Woodlawn (which never existed), and he (Syed) showed him (Wilds) the body when he arrived to meet him. They apparently rode to the park, dug a shallow grave for the young lady’s body with shovels provided by Wilds, abandoned her car in West Baltimore – which according to him, Syed has her body in – and went on with life as normal.
Several dozen discrepancies and issues of Wilds truthfulness were raised throughout the trial, as well as Syed’s legal counsel overlooking the unreliable cell phone tower data, and not contacting an alibi witness, Asia McClain, who offered to testify that she was with Syed in the Woodlawn library during the time that police say he was killing her by strangulation – in the middle of the day, in the Best Buy parking lot. However, the jury found Syed guilty of murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment, sentencing him to a total term of life imprisonment plus thirty years.
That conviction was subsequently upheld on direct appeal, and his 2010 post-conviction relief was also denied in January of 2014. After granting leave to appeal in February of 2015, the court finally granted him an order on May 18, 2015, staying Syed’s appeal and granting his request to remand the case for further proceedings and examination. During this time, Syed filed a motion to re-open his post-conviction proceedings based on Ms. McClain’s affidavit that she was in fact a reliable and credible alibi witness that should have been called to testify during the initial trial.
However, Judge Welch granted him a new trial based not on the testimony of Ms. McClain, but rather on the fact that his attorney should have cross-examined the expert witness who was testifying as to the cell phone tower data that seemed to put Mr. Syed in the area of the killing during the timeline that police say the crime occurred. The state appealed his decision, and Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgement of the circuit court judge, but not on the grounds of cell phone tower data, but on the grounds that his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel were violated by trial counsel’s failure to investigate the potential alibi witness testimony of Ms. McClain.
And of course, the state appealed their decision once again; leaving us where we stand today, as the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is set to hear the case tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. to decided on whether or not Mr. Syed should be granted a new trial – almost twenty years after the initial crime and conviction.
And instead of the state being that of Baltimore City’s States Attorneys office, who were the initial prosecutors of the trial. It has been handled by the state’s Attorney General’s Office for the past five years, specifically by an attorney by the name of Thiru Vignarajah – a private attorney now, working for one of the largest law firms in the country, who is being allowed to continue in the prosecution of this case, an unprecedented action that no one to-date has ever been able to explain or attempt to justify.
So make sure to tune-in to the DMVDaily Radio Show to hear the exclusive show leading up to tomorrow’s hearing, and then listen to the court proceedings live here, and listen for yourself as to what case the state actually has; and then decide for yourself if this young man deserves a new trial.