Attorneys for Adnan Syed filed their petition for review with the Supreme Court Monday, arguing the case presents a straightforward issue despite its “eye-catching” nature, which has inspired podcasts and documentaries.
The Maryland Court of Appeals reinstated Syed’s conviction in March, finding the failure of his defense attorney to contact an alibi witness constituted deficient performance but did not prejudice Syed’s case. The Court of Special Appeals had previously vacated the conviction and awarded Syed a new trial.
The four-judge majority in the Court of Appeals applied the Supreme Court’s test for ineffective assistance of counsel from 1984’s Strickland v. Washington. Syed’s petition for review contends the Maryland judges applied a standard that conflicts with that used by other courts to evaluate such cases.
At least 10 state and federal courts have adopted the approach of comparing the case presented by the state to the case the defendant would have provided had the attorney been effective, according to the petition. Syed contends his case was prejudiced by his attorney’s performance.
The uncontacted alibi witness, Asia McClain, stated in a post-trial affidavit that Syed was at a Woodlawn public library when prosecutors said the 1999 slaying of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, occurred. The popular “Serial” podcast examined whether Syed’s case was prejudiced because his trial attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, failed to contact McClain. Gutierrez died in 2004.
Syed argues that conflicting testimony about his whereabouts at the time the state said the murder happened could have resulted in a different outcome.
The conflicting standards used to evaluate prejudice under Strickland can be resolved by Syed’s case, according to the petition.
“This case presents a clean vehicle to address an important question that now divides the state and federal courts: whether courts must take the State’s case as it was presented to the jury when evaluating Strickland prejudice,” the petition states.
Courts in Connecticut, Idaho and Vermont, as well as the appellate courts for the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits, have taken the position that the court must compare the case actually presented against the potential case of the defendant with effective counsel. Three other circuits have applied similar approaches but not as explicitly, according to the petition.
The Maryland Court of Appeals did not analyze the case the state actually presented but “hypothesized a different case, one where the jury rejected the State’s theory of the time of Lee’s death in favor of some unpresented and unknown alternative timeline,” according to the petition.
The majority concluded the case against Syed would not have been substantially undermined by McClain’s testimony alone because of substantial direct and circumstantial evidence of his guilt.
Syed also claims the decision reached by the Court of Appeals was incorrect even using the standard that it did. Citing the three-judge dissenting opinion, the petition points out that McClain’s testimony was about the “most integral period of time in the case” and presented direct evidence of Syed’s whereabouts. Failing to present that testimony was prejudicial, the petition concludes.