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Bulked up defense team faces state appeal of Syed new trial grant

The Maryland attorney general’s office said Monday it will appeal the new trial granted to Adnan Syed, a decision that was not a surprise to Syed’s defense attorney who worked for years to get his murder conviction thrown out.

FILE - In a Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 file photo, Adnan Syed enters Courthouse East in Baltimore prior to a hearing. The hearing, scheduled to last three days before Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch, is meant to determine whether Syed's conviction will be overturned and case retried. After spending 16 years in prison, Syed, convicted of murder, who was at the center of the podcast "Serial" has won a new trial in Baltimore. Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled Thursday, June 30, 2016, that Syed deserves another trial because his attorney failed to cross-examine a cell tower expert about the reliability of data. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File) WASHINGTON EXAMINER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT /The Baltimore Sun via AP) WASHINGTON EXAMINER OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

Adnan Syed enters Baltimore City Circuit Court earlier this year. A pro bono team from Hogan Lovells US LLP will be assisting Baltimore lawyer Justin Brown in the case going forward, beginning with the state’s appeal of the new trial granted to Syed. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun via AP, File)

But Justin Brown now has some help as he continues to fight on behalf of Syed, whose case was made famous by the “Serial” podcast.

Earlier this month, Hogan Lovells US LLP announced a pro bono team would assist Brown in Syed’s case going forward. Brown contacted the firm about a month before retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch’s June 30 ruling.

“It’s something that I had been thinking about for a while and I was getting inquiries which made me think about it more,” Brown said recently. “I spoke to other lawyers who I sometimes seek advice from and several of them recommended doing it.”

Brown contacted several firms offering pro bono assistance but felt Hogan Lovells was the strongest match.

“All lawyers like to have complete control over their cases, but one thing I’ve learned is that I have limitations and my law firm has limitations,” said Brown, of Brown & Nieto LLC in Baltimore. “I’m not too proud to ask for help when I think it’s going to benefit the client.”

Syed was “very happy” to have Hogan Lovells on board, according to Brown.

“He is someone who understands how difficult this process is and it’s obviously been a long and exhaustive road for the last 17 years,” he said. “He shares my thoughts [about] including them in the case.”

Brown said he was looking for a big firm with resources to invest, excellent lawyers and a local presence in Baltimore.

“They’re doing a lot of things that I have just not had the manpower to do,” he said.

Prior to Welch’s ruling, members of Hogan Lovells’ appellate practice had begun looking at the case with the expectation they would be involved in the appellate process as well as the retrial, partner T. Clark Weymouth said earlier this month. Members of the firm’s District of Columbia office were familiar with the podcast and fascinated by the case long before Brown contacted them, he said.

“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm about us taking the case on generally and a lot of our colleagues have stepped forward to provide their services,” Weymouth said.

The challenge with a case that is both decades old and surrounded by so much public opinion is evaluating it like they would any other case, he added.

“The good news is that there is at least some information, a lot of information, already out there,” he said. “The challenge will be sifting through what’s true, what’s not.”

Weymouth said the pro bono team, which has received awards from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, has a system in place for reviewing criminal cases to hone in on what the state’s theory of the case is and what information is corroborated.

“My impression is it’s going to be difficult for the state to make a case that Adnan is guilty of the crime he’s charged with given how much time has passed,” he said.

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General had no comment Monday on the appeal, according to a spokeswoman.

Big Law up close

Syed prevailed on a petition for post-conviction relief, resulting in his first-degree murder conviction for the 1999 death of his former high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee being thrown out.

Welch determined Syed’s trial counsel prejudiced his case by not cross-examining the state’s expert on cellphones, who testified that two incoming calls to Syed’s phone placed him at the site where Lee’s body was buried.

The witness, Abraham Waranowitz, 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.

Welch referenced the unusual level of public attention the case had garnered through Serial but said he approached the case as he would any other, “unfettered by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion.”

Steven F. Barley, managing partner of Hogan Lovells’ Baltimore office, said he read some news coverage of the case but had not listened to the podcast, which allows him to bring a fresh set of eyes to the case.

“I think it was somewhat of an advantage to come in with an unbiased view of things,” he said.

Brown said he’s been bringing the Hogan Lovells team up to speed while waiting for the state’s appeal.

“It is fantastic,” he said. “Just the amount of energy and interest and working with so many different lawyers who are just so bright and able to pick up on issues so quickly, it’s very encouraging for me. I’ve always looked at Big Law from the outside, from very far away, just to see them at work close-up has been pretty exciting.”