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Mosby seeks new trial for ‘Serial’ subject Adnan Syed

Convicted first-degree murderer Adnan Syed, whose claims of innocence and ineffective counsel were chronicled in the “Serial” podcast but turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court, may get the new trial he has sought for 20 years in the strangling death of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office filed papers in Baltimore City Circuit Court Wednesday calling for a new trial amid the discovery or disclosure of two other individuals who may have been involved in Lee’s 1999 slaying and of investigators’ possible reliance on unreliable cellphone tower data.

Mosby also requested that Syed, who is serving a life sentence plus 30 years, be released pending a new trial.

“Since the inception of my administration, my prosecutors have been sworn to not only aggressively advocate on behalf of the victims of crime, but in the pursuit of justice – when the evidence exists – to correct the wrongs of the past where doubt is evident,” Mosby said in a statement Wednesday.

“For that reason, after a nearly yearlong investigation reviewing the facts of this case, Syed deserves a new trial where he is adequately represented and the latest evidence can be presented,” Mosby stated. “As stewards of the court, we are obligated to uphold confidence in the integrity of convictions and do our part to correct when this standard has been compromised. We have spoken with the family of Ms. Hae Min Lee and fully understand that the person responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable.”

Added Mosby: “We believe that keeping Mr. Syed detained as we continue to investigate the case with everything that we know now, when we do not have confidence in results of the first trial, would be unjust.”

The state’s attorney’s filing is not an assertion that Syed is innocent but an acknowledgment that the state “lacks confidence in the integrity of the conviction and requests that Mr. Syed be afforded a new trial,” Mosby’s office stated.

Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, welcomed the filing and in a statement said her client will be acquitted.

“Given the stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed, coupled with increasing evidence pointing to other suspects, this unjust conviction cannot stand,” said Suter, an assistant Maryland public defender and director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Innocence Project Clinic. “Mr. Syed is grateful that this information has finally seen the light of day and looks forward to his day in court.”

Syed’s defense has long suspected that the prosecution withheld potentially exculpatory evidence before and during Syed’s trial, including other potential suspects, in violation of the state’s duty to disclose under the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland. The state’s attorney’s filing has stoked that suspicion.

“This is a true example of how justice delayed is justice denied,” chief Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a statement. “An innocent man spends decades wrongly incarcerated, while any information or evidence that could identify the actual perpetrator becomes increasingly difficult to pursue.”

The state’s attorney’s filing comes six months after Baltimore City Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn ordered Baltimore police to send evidence in the case against Syed to a California crime lab. The order followed a motion jointly signed by prosecutors and Syed’s defense seeking a retest of some items collected as evidence in the killing of 17-year-old Lee using DNA technology not available for Syed’s 2000 trial.

The widely viewed “Serial” podcast that premiered in 2014 examined whether Syed’s case was prejudiced because his trial attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, failed to contact an alibi witness. Gutierrez died in 2004.

Syed’s bid for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel essentially ended in November 2019 when the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

The justices let stand without comment the Maryland high court’s ruling that the lawyer’s lapse constituted ineffective assistance but did not deprive Syed of a fair trial because he would have been convicted even with the witness’s testimony.

In its controversial ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals said Gutierrez’s failure to interview his sole alibi witness was deficient legal representation but had no “prejudicial” effect because her testimony would not have created “a substantial or significant possibility” that the jury’s verdict would have been for acquittal.

The uncontacted alibi witness, Asia McClain, stated in a post-trial affidavit that Syed was at a Woodlawn public library at the time prosecutors said Lee was killed.

That testimony, however, would have contradicted Syed’s statements regarding his whereabouts, which did not mention his having been at the library, the Maryland high court held.

In his ill-fated petition for Supreme Court review, Syed argued through counsel that the defense attorney’s failure violated his constitutional Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance because the alibi witness’s testimony would likely have resulted in his acquittal.

The Maryland attorney general’s office countered that the uncalled witness’s testimony that Syed was at the library would not have refuted the state’s evidence of Syed’s murderous motive and opportunity to kill Lee, on Jan. 13, 1999.

The prosecution’s case hinged not on when the victim died but rather on what the Baltimore City Circuit Court called, in upholding the conviction, “the crucial link between Mr. Syed burying Ms. Lee’s body and the state’s evidence supporting that allegation,” the attorney general’s office stated.

When post-conviction proceedings were reopened based on McLain’s affidavit, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch ruled in 2016 that Gutierrez’ failure to contact the alibi witness had prejudicial effect and the conviction was vacated, allowing for a retrial.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld that decision.

But the Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction, prompting Syed’s unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.