The post-conviction hearing for Adnan Syed, whose case was made famous by the 2014 legal podcast Serial, featured intense testimony from an expert witness who argued the murder conviction should be invalidated due to insufficient defense counsel. The hearing, which is expected to conclude later this week, will determine the fate of Syed who is currently serving a life sentence.
Serial Podcast Leads to Post-Conviction Hearing
In 2000 Adnan Syed was convicted for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and high school classmate. From the moment of his arrest Syed has maintained his innocence, and has spent the time since his conviction seeking a new trial by claiming his defense attorney provided constitutionally inadequate representation. Syed has been in prison for more than 16 years, but finally earned a post-conviction hearing to review his case in part due to the overwhelming popularity of a NPR podcast which reviewed the facts of the case and Adnan’s prosecution.
In 2014 journalist Sarah Koenig produced and hosted a podcast on NPR called Serial which discussed the investigation into Lee’s murder and Adnan’s involvement. Throughout the course of Serial’s first season Koenig pointed to a number of procedural question marks in Adnan’s prosecution and defense, the most glaring of which was his attorney’s failure to properly question a number of potential alibi witnesses who placed Adnan in a different location from Lee at the time of her murder.
Three weeks after the conclusion of Serial’s expose on Adnan’s murder trial, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals allowed him to appeal his conviction on the grounds his attorney, Christina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, was ineffective in her efforts to defend him.
Adnan Syed Defense Team Calls Legal Expert Witness
A criminal defense expert witness called by Adnan’s attorneys took the stand to tell the court that Gutierrez’s failure to pursue alibi witnesses was a crucial mistake which satisfies the legal standard for constitutionally insufficient counsel. According to David Irwin, an attorney who consults as an expert witness for criminal defense, Gutierrez was made aware of potential alibi witnesses by Adnan shortly after his arrest, but she didn’t seriously inquire about their alibi testimony or call any to the stand during Syed’s criminal trial.
Irwin called Gutierrez’s failure a “game changer” which “made an incredible difference in the outcome of the case” and told the Court of Special Appeals that Adnan’s insufficient counsel satisfied the Strickland Test, named after the Supreme Court case Strickland v Washington. The Strickland Test, which is used to determine whether defense counsel was constitutionally deficient, requires a defendant to first show his counsel fell below an objective standard of reasonable quality and second that had the defense attorney performed adequately the outcome of the trial would have been different.
During his expert testimony Irwin said that Gutierrez’s counsel fell below the standard for care expected of defense attorneys and the result of Adnan’s trial would likely have been different because alibi witnesses are, according to Irwin, the second-best evidence a defendant can present at trial. Irwin concluded that there were no tactical reasons for Gutierrez to not call alibi witnesses, which suggests her decision to not follow up on those witnesses constituted a failure.
Alibi Witness Testifies at Adnan’s Appeals Trial
To bolster testimony by its expert witness, Adnan Syed’s defense team called a key alibi witness to the stand during his post-conviction hearing. Asia McClain, a classmate of Adnan’s, testified during the hearing that she remembered seeing the defendant at the library at the time he was allegedly killing Lee in a Best Buy parking lot. McClain also told the court that Gutierrez knew about her statement but did not call her to the stand, lending credibility to Irwin’s claim that Adnan was not adequately represented during his initial trial.
Adnan’s post-conviction hearing, which also featured expert testimony from prosecutors which argued cell phone information linking Adnan to the murder scene was valid, is expected to wrap up this week after several days of dramatic testimony.