The Maryland court of special appeals has granted a rare hearing to Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man convicted of strangling his high-school girlfriend whose case was examined in detail by the wildly successful Serial podcast.
“We’re delighted,” said Syed’s attorney, C Justin Brown, a Baltimore-based lawyer who specializes in post-conviction relief. “They’re going to give us formal briefing, and hear the full appeal, which includes both of the issues we presented to the court about a year ago.”
The court granted Syed’s application, known as a “leave to appeal” on Friday, in a rare victory for such petitions.
Brown’s law firm is arguing that Syed received ineffective counsel leading to his conviction in 2000, and that a potentially key witness who could account for Syed’s whereabouts at the time of the murder was never asked to testify. The appeal seeks a new trial for Syed or to have the testimony of witness Asia McClain heard at a lower court as evidence.
Syed was a student at Woodlawn high school in 1999 when he was charged with strangling his ex-girlfriend, fellow student Hae Min Lee. Prosecutors said Syed was jealous and ashamed when Lee began dating someone else, motivating him to murder the teen and dump her body in a park.
Syed’s case came to national attention after radio producer Sarah Koenig spent more than a year investigating it, and parsed the evidence in fine detail through 12 episodes of the Serial podcast. Syed, now 34, is serving a life sentence for the crime.
Serial stoked conversations about Syed’s case around the country.
Syed’s attorneys claim that his former counsel, Cristina Gutierrez, failed to negotiate a plea agreement despite multiple requests. Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001 when client funds went missing from a trust account; she died in 2004 of a heart attack. The appeal also claims McClain could have provided an alibi for Syed, but was never contacted.
Prosecutors asked the court not to grant Syed’s appeal, saying he did not claim his counsel was ineffective until after he was convicted.
“What the record shows is that [Syed] was totally satisfied with Gutierrez’s services until the jury returned an adverse verdict,” the Associated Press reported about prosecutors’ 23-page brief to the court.
Each episode of the record-breaking podcast has been downloaded about 3.4 million times, all but making Syed a household name. However, Brown said that while the popularity of the podcast has helped the case in other ways, judges at the Maryland court of special appeals decided the case on its merits.
“I am 100% sure that the judges granted the [hearing] based on the merit of our issues,” Brown said. “They’re driven by issues. They wouldn’t have granted [a hearing] unless they had some very real interest in those issues.”
The appeal granted on Friday is part of a complicated web of court proceedings that Brown has undertaken since Syed’s conviction. The hearing granted will allow Syed’s attorney to argue fully the two aforementioned issues, and is itself an appeal of a denial of post-conviction relief.
Being granted a hearing by the court of special appeals is exceedingly rare – all criminal defendants have a right to one appeal. But convicts like Syed, who have not succeeded in those direct appeals, must petition the special appeals court to hear their case, a process similar to how US supreme court cases are chosen.
If a panel of three judges rules in favor of Syed, there is a chance that prosecutors could appeal the decision, bringing it through yet another court. The hearing is scheduled for June.