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Lead counsel for Md. on Syed appeal working case pro bono

Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah (File)

Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah is working pro bono on the post-conviction proceedings for Adnan Syed. (File)

The state’s lead counsel in the post-conviction proceedings for Adnan Syed is working for the attorney general’s office pro bono, according to documents obtained by The Daily Record.

Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah was lead counsel on the case while serving as the state’s deputy attorney general before joining DLA Piper US LLP’s Baltimore office as a litigation partner in January.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh sent Vignarajah a letter Feb. 21 confirming Vignarajah’s appointment as a special assistant attorney general to continue in his role in State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed.

“By virtue of this appointment, you shall have all the powers, duties, and responsibilities of an Assistant Attorney General of the Office of the Attorney General in the context of your work on this matter. You will not receive compensation for this appointment,” Frosh wrote in the letter, which The Daily Record received through a Public Information Act request.

Vignarajah represented the state as special assistant attorney general in front of a three-judge panel at the Court of Special Appeals in June, when he argued that Syed’s attorney in his murder trial used her best judgement when choosing to not interview an alibi witness. Syed was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years in 1999 for killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. His story gained international attention through the “Serial” podcast two years ago.

Vignarajah deferred to DLA Piper spokesman Josh Epstein when asked for comment on his role in the Syed post-conviction proceedings.

“Thiru has agreed to continue to work on this case pro bono as a special assistant attorney general, at the designation and under the supervision of the attorney general,” Epstein said in a statement Tuesday. “This is consistent with Thiru’s commitment to public service, and it is consistent with DLA Piper’s commitment to supporting and standing up for victims of domestic violence.”

Appointing special counsel is not unusual for the attorney general’s office, said spokeswoman Raquel Coombs. For example, Carroll County Deputy State’s Attorney Edward Coyne was appointed as special assistant attorney general to assist in prosecution of a cocaine trafficking case.

Appellate arguments

Post-conviction proceedings were reopened in Syed’s case based on an affidavit from Asia McClain, Syed’s former classmate who said she saw Syed in the library on the afternoon Lee was murdered. Syed’s defense attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, did not contact McClain to testify at trial.

In June, the three-judge Court of Special Appeals panel weighed whether a defense attorney has an obligation to investigate an alibi witness, even if that witness’ account may disrupt defense strategy. Syed’s conviction was vacated last year pending appeal from the attorney general’s office.

Vignarajah cautioned the court against the “dangers of second guessing” complex criminal proceedings from several years ago. He argued that there were several accounts of where Syed was the afternoon Lee was killed and about when Gutierrez first heard about McClain.

“That’s the problem counselor,” Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward said to Vignarajah. “Defense counsel never talked to Ms. McClain. Nobody from her office talked to Ms. McClain,” he said.  “How do you know it’s inconsistent if you don’t talk to the person?”

A decision from the appellate panel is pending.

While at the attorney general’s office, Vignarajah oversaw criminal, civil rights and juvenile justice matters. Previously, Vignarajah was a federal prosecutor and served as chief of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office’s Major Investigations Unit, which targeted violent, repeat offenders.

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