Lawyers for Adnan Syed on Thursday filed a written brief ahead of oral arguments next month as they seek his freedom.
Syed’s case was the first season subject of the podcast “Serial,” produced by the team behind public radio’s “This American Life.” Syed was convicted in the death of his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High classmate Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Baltimore City. “Serial” and a separate podcast produced by supporters pointed to factors including inadequate assistance from counsel, questionable cell phone evidence and missing testimony at trial from a key alibi witness in suggesting Syed may not be guilty.
A city judge vacated Syed’s conviction last year, but was denied bail as he awaits a new trial. Thursday’s brief is a reply to the state’s brief, filed February as part of dueling appeals to the state Court of Special Appeals.
The state, represented by Attorney General Brian Frosh and former deputy attorney general Thiru Vignarajah (now with DLA Piper), argues that in vacating Syed’s conviction, the court considered factors beyond its scope, particularly the cell tower evidence. Lawyers called it “an abuse of discretion in flagrant violation of the governing statute.”
As for claiming ineffective assistance from lawyer Christina Gutierrez, they claimed Syed waived the right to do so long ago.
“That is wrong, because the error at issue is based on the Circuit Court’s 2016 ruling,” Syed attorney C. Justin Brown wrote. “Thus, this appeal was the first time when the issue could have been raised—and it was.”
Brown wrote Gutierrez’s failure to contact and investigate her “before trial constituted deficient performance,” not to mention her failure to sufficiently challenge the cell tower evidence or challenge the changing stories of the state’s key witness.
“Had trial counsel contacted McClain and challenged the State’s expert about cell phone location evidence, Syed could have persuasively undermined the State’s entire theory of the case, not to mention further undermining the narrative of its star but utterly unreliable witness Jay Wilds—attacking both the time of the murder and Syed’s whereabouts after the fact,” Brown wrote. “The Circuit Court’s failure to consider the aggregate effect of trial counsel’s deficiencies is thus an independent basis for reversal.”
Oral arguments are set for June 8.