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Baltimore judge grants a new trial for Adnan Syed, man in ‘Serial’ podcast

Adnan Syed.

Adnan Syed.

A Baltimore judge on Thursday threw out the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, whose case formed the subject of the wildly popular Serial podcast’s first season, and granted a request for a new trial.

Syed was convicted of murdering his former high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 and burying her in a park. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The grant of a new trial was “an incredible victory” after an eight-year battle, according to Syed’s attorney, Justin Brown of Brown & Nieto LLC in Baltimore.

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.

Brown said he was not able to reach Syed to give him to news immediately Thursday but added the next big step is to try to have Syed released from jail while he awaits retrial.

During a post-conviction hearing in February, attorneys for Syed argued that he was entitled to a new trial based on the alleged incompetence of his now-deceased trial attorney. They also cited new evidence, including an alibi witness and information that cast doubt on the reliability of cell phone records that prosecutors used to support their case against Syed.

Retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, in a 59-page memorandum opinion filed Thursday, ruled that Syed deserves another trial because his attorney failed to cross-examine a cell tower expert about the reliability of data that placed Syed’s cellphone near the burial site.

Syed alleged misconduct on the part of prosecutors at his trial by failing to disclose evidence related to the reliability of cell tower location evidence. Welch found Syed waived his right to make that argument because he could have done so in a prior proceeding and there was no evidence the state suppressed any of the evidence at issue.

However, the failure of trial counsel to cross-examine Abraham Waranowitz — the state’s cellphone expert at trial — did prejudice Syed’s case, according to Welch.

At trial, the state relied on two incoming calls to show Syed was at the burial site around 7 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1999. Waranowitz testified that cell towers indicated Syed’s phone was near the location based on the incoming call data but recently said in an affidavit that his testimony would have been different if he had seen an AT&T fax cover sheet warning that incoming calls should not be relied on to determine location.

Syed argued a reasonable attorney would have cross-examined Waranowitz on this issue, and Welch agreed.

“Whether Petitioner’s cell phone records revealed an incriminating link between Petitioner and the murder was an issue of crucial importance,” he wrote. “Under these circumstances, a reasonable attorney would have carefully reviewed the documents disclosed as part of pre-trial discovery.”

Alibi witness

The February hearing included testimony from Asia McClain,  a Woodlawn High School classmate of Syed’s who claimed to have spoken with him in a public library around the same time that prosecutors said he murdered Hae Min Lee.

McClain spent nearly two days on the stand, testifying she and Syed spent about 15 minutes chatting in the library on Jan. 13, 1999, but that despite repeated efforts to reach the defense team at the time with an offer to be an alibi, she was never contacted. McClain wrote a pair of letters and sent them to Syed in jail days after the man’s arrest, detailing their meeting.

Syed’s current attorneys, Brown and Christopher Nieto, pointed to the letters as proof of her story, which has remained largely consistent for 16 years.

 

Failing to contact McClain did not prejudice Syed’s defense, according to Welch’s opinion, because the time of the murder was not “the crux of the State’s case.” The state’s theory of the time of the murder was relatively weak, Welch said, and McClain’s testimony would not have affected prosecutors’ key allegation that Syed buried the victim’s body later.

Welch acknowledged the unusual level of public attention Syed’s request for a new trial received and the role that the “Serial” podcast played in bringing the case into the public eye.

The podcast, which debuted in the winter of 2014, attracted millions of listeners and shattered records for the number of times a podcast has been streamed and downloaded. The loyal army of listeners often acted as armchair detectives, uncovering new evidence and raising new questions about the case.

“This case represents an unusual juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest created by modern media,” Welch wrote. “…Serial has attracted millions of active listeners worldwide and inspired many, through social media, to support or advocate against Petitioner’s request for post-conviction relief.”

Regardless of public interest in the case, Welch said he addressed the merits of the petition as he would in any other case “unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion.”

Juliet Linderman of The Associated Press contributed to this story.