Mar 15 2019

Adnan Syed’s Conviction Reinstated

By Sarah Koenig

Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has denied a new trial for Adnan Syed. The decision was close (4-3); it’s momentous, and possibly, final. To Adnan and his legal team, it came as a terrible shock. But Adnan’s attorney, Justin Brown, says they’re not giving up. The day the decision came, he tweeted: “I just spoke to Adnan. There is not an ounce of quit in him.” On the phone with me, Justin said right now they’re turning over various legal options, state and federal, including the possibility that they could try to take Adnan’s case to the United States Supreme Court. But all these options — do I need to say it? — they’re longshots. Some of them, perhaps most of them, would take years. “We’re just gonna keep fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting,” Justin said. “That’s the strategy.”

Adnan’s appeal traveled a remarkable route. It’s been scrutinized more times, by more judges, in more courts, than the great majority of cases. (I started speaking to Adnan just before his first petition for post-conviction relief was denied in 2014; that was more than five years and four court decisions ago.) If you’re confused about what exactly happened, that’s because it is confusing, what exactly happened. Maybe this image will help: Imagine a line of a dozen judges waiting their turn to contemplate a series of light switches. The first guy walks by, turns two switches on, turns one switch off; the next three judges who walk by switch his OFF to ON, but also switch one of his ONs to OFF. And so on, down the line.

For those of you who’d like specifics, I’ll review as swiftly as I can: A circuit court judge vacated Adnan’s murder conviction and granted him a new trial in 2016. That judge found that Adnan’s attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, had screwed up — objectively screwed up — in two ways. One error was her failure to contact Asia McClain, a potential alibi witness. But, the judge said, that error didn’t prejudice Adnan’s case (in other words, the lawyer’s mistake wouldn’t necessarily have changed the guilty verdict). Instead, the error the circuit judge was concerned with, was Gutierrez’s failure to properly cross-examine a cell-tower expert from AT&T. He said that mistake might well have affected the outcome of Adnan’s case. So based on that deficiency, the judge granted Adnan a new trial.

Maryland prosecutors appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Court of Special Appeals (COSA), which flip-flopped the circuit judge’s opinion. The COSA judges said: Not only should Gutierrez have investigated Asia McClain’s alibi story, but her failure to do so did prejudice Adnan’s case (i.e., could have made a difference in the outcome). But the cell-tower expert? The COSA judges said technically, that issue shouldn’t even be up for discussion; according to Maryland rules about post-conviction complaints, it was too late to address it. But Adnan’s right to a new trial still held, based on the Asia McClain error.

Next up, the Court of Appeals — again, this is Maryland’s highest court. Both the state and Adnan filed petitions with the Court of Appeals: The state complained about the alibi thing; Adnan complained about the cell-tower thing. Last week, four out of the seven judges who reviewed the case said no, Gutierrez’s failure to investigate Asia McClain’s alibi statement did not prejudice his case; and yes, it was indeed too late to bring in the issue of the cell-tower expert. (Three Court of Appeals judges disagreed with their colleagues, saying the abili issue was prejudicial, but they were outnumbered.) This final tally, this final combination of yeses and nos, means Adnan’s murder conviction stands, and he is no longer granted a new trial.

Over the years, as I’ve read various court opinions, I’ve found some of the arguments frustratingly thin, and some of the prosecutors’ filings shrill and self-protective, but I’ve stayed pretty quiet about that. Now, I’m going to say it: I disagree with the Court of Appeals decision. I fully understand the technicalities, but they shouldn’t stand as a bulwark against fairness. A major alibi witness (Asia) was never heard from at Adnan’s trial. Another important witness (from AT&T) now says he can’t stand by his testimony. Almost all the judges who’ve looked at this case agree that Adnan’s trial attorney (Cristina) was deficient. And recently we learned that DNA testing done on samples taken from Hae Min Lee’s body doesn’t implicate Adnan. He should get a new trial.

A reminder: Adnan was 17 years old when he was arrested for this crime. If we’re going to lock up a teenager for the rest of his life based on a seriously flawed case, then the least we can do is allow him another crack at the courtroom after not one, but two Maryland courts have declared that his conviction should be vacated. This isn’t how I want my criminal justice system to function. (For more on that, see Serial Season Three.)

I’m often asked whether I’m still covering the case, whether I’ll be doing more episodes as it unfolds. The answer is no. I’m learning about these court decisions at the same time the rest of the world is. And while I’m loathe to say I’ll never do more reporting on it (because who knows), I don’t foresee any more Serial episodes about the case. As anyone reading this doubtless knows, Adnan’s case has received massive attention ever since we aired Season One. At this point, I don’t have anything to add to the deluge of reporting that’s already aswirl. Like millions of people, I’ve become a spectator.

Over and out,
Sarah K.

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