After spending 16 years in prison for the killing of his former high school girlfriend, a man at the center of popular podcast “Serial” has been granted a new trial. Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled June 30 that Adnan Syed, 35, deserved a new trial because his lawyer didn’t challenge testimony in the case that became the focus of the podcast, which captivated millions of listeners around the world.
The Pakistani American was convicted in 2000 of murdering Hae Min Lee a year earlier and burying her in a shallow grave in a park in northwest Baltimore. He was sentenced to life in prison.
During a post-conviction hearing in early February, Syed’s attorneys argued he deserved a retrial on the grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, did not contact Asia McClain Chapman, an alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the Woodlawn library about the same time prosecutors say Lee was murdered.
Additionally, Syed’s current attorneys argued cell tower data linking Syed’s phone to the burial site on the day of Lee’s murder was misleading because it was presented to jurors without a cover sheet warning that incoming call data was unreliable.
In Welch’s order, he disagreed that Gutierrez erred when she failed to contact Chapman, or that prosecutors breached their duty by withholding exculpatory evidence. But Welch did agree that Syed’s attorney provided “ineffective assistance for the failure to cross-examine the state’s cell tower expert about the reliability of cell tower location evidence” that placed him near the burial site.
The state had argued that because Syed didn’t raise the issue of his trial attorney’s failure to cross-examine the state’s cell tower expert in a prior proceeding, he waived his right to make it an issue now. But the judge ruled that Syed didn’t “intelligently or knowingly” waive his right to raise the issue, noting that he never completed his high school degree.
“Requiring a layman who lacks a complete high school education to understand the intricacies of cellular network design and the legal ramifications of trial counsel’s failures to challenge the evidence would be inconsistent with the spirit of the Sixth Amendment,” the judge wrote.
The judge said the attorney’s performance “fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment” when she failed to confront the state’s expert about the reliability of the cell tower evidence.
At a news conference, Brown said he “fully expects” the state to appeal the judge’s decision. But he said he and the rest of the defense team have “dug our heels in” and remain determined to fight on Adnan Syed’s behalf, including requesting that Syed be released from jail while he awaits retrial. “This is obviously an incredible victory,” he said. “We know the state is not going to give up, and we’re ready.”