After his initial petition was overturned by Maryland’s court of appeals, Syed took his case to the supreme court. But the news of the judges’ ruling leaves hopes for a new trial in doubt.
Almost two years ago, Adnan Syed – the Baltimore man currently serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee – was granted a retrial.
The Maryland court of special appeals found that Syed, the central character in the first season of hit podcast Serial, had received ineffective legal counsel at his original trial. Most significantly, the judges on the court said that Syed’s first trial lawyer had failed to investigate the alibi of Asia McClain, a school friend of Syed who claimed to have seen him at a public library at the time he was said to have killed Lee.
However, the decision to allow Syed a retrial has now been overruled. First by the Maryland court of appeals, the highest court in the state, which overturned the judgement of the court of special appeals – meaning that he will not be tried again for Lee’s murder. According to the Baltimore Sun newspaper, the judges on the court of appeals voted four to three against allowing Syed a retrial, concluding that trying him a second time for Lee’s murder was unlikely to result in a different verdict.
And now, on 25 November 2019, that decision was upheld by the supreme court, the highest judicial office in the US.
“We are deeply disappointed by the supreme court but by no means is this the end of Adnan Syed,” defense attorney C Justin Brown told Associated Press on 25 November 2019. “There are other legal options and we are exploring each and every one of them.”
How did this decision come about? For one, the judges on the court of appeals reportedly disagreed with the lower courts’ verdict that Syed had received ineffective representation at his trial in 2000. The debate about whether the late Cristina Gutierrez was a adequate attorney was discussed in great detail in Serial, and has formed a central pillar of the campaign to free Syed.
His new attorney has argued that Gutierrez made mistakes both prior and during the 2000 trial that resulted in Syed being convicted – including her failure to look into the Asia McClain alibi.
However, the court of appeals rejected the idea that Gutierrez’s legal counsel was sufficiently flawed for Syed to deserve a retrial. The judges also disputed the suggestion that Syed had been met with prejudice during his original trial.
“Given the totality of the evidence the jury heard, we conclude that there is not a significant or substantial possibility that the verdict would have been different had trial counsel presented” an alibi witness, wrote Judge Clayton Greene Jr in his official ruling in 2018.
Syed’s conviction for Lee’s murder was first vacated by a lower court judge in Maryland in 2016, who ruled that he deserved a new trial. However, he will now continue serving his life sentence for the killing.
Millions of people became engrossed in the story of Syed, Lee and Jay Wilds when the first season of Serial premiered in 2014, and Syed’s current attorney C Justin Brown has said the podcast “was enormously helpful” in garnering support for his client. A new HBO/Sky Atlantic documentary about the case, The Case Against Adnan Syed, premiered in early 2019, and you can read Stylist’s review of the documentary here.
However, the public interest in the case did not ultimately affect the decision of the court of appeals. Following the court’s ruling, Brown said he was “devastated” and would continue to search for other “avenues of relief” for his client.
“Our criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform,” he said. “The obstacles to getting a new trial are simply too great.
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