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Serial’s Adnan Syed Granted New Trial Due to Questions of Expert Witness Reliability

The subject of the first season of the popular legal podcast Serial has been granted a new trial in large part due to questions about the reliability of the prosecution’s cell phone expert witness used to convict him.  An appellate court vacated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed citing the failure of his attorney to challenge the prosecution’s cell tower expert witness over some flawed logic, giving Syed an opportunity to pursue a re-trial with a different lawyer.  Prosecutors have promised to appeal the ruling, but should it stand then they will need to prepare for a second murder trial.

Serial’s Adnan Syed Granted a New Trial

Late last month, Judge Martin P Welch of the Baltimore City Circuit Court granted a motion by Adnan Syed requesting a re-trial for the 1999 murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  Syed, now 35, was 17-year-old when he was convicted in 2000 for Lee’s murder, and has spent the last 16 years serving a life sentence in Maryland.  In 2014, the podcast Serial introduced Syed’s case to the nation, and opened up the opportunity for attorneys to question the legitimacy of the evidence used to convict the defendant, particularly testimony from a cell phone tower expert witness called by prosecutors.

During post-conviction hearings in February of this year, Syed’s attorneys presented new evidence of an alibi witness and raised questions about the validity of the prosecution’s cell phone expert.  According to Syed’s current counsel, his lawyer during the initial trial was “grossly negligent” by failing to pursue all the possible evidence which could help her client, including a counter expert who could have raised doubts about the prosecution’s case.  Defense attorneys representing Syed called the ruling an important victory, but cautioned the process is far from over as the Baltimore District Attorney still has the opportunity to appeal Judge Welch’s ruling before having to re-try Syed for Lee’s murder.

Syed Motion for New Trial Focuses on Shaky Expert Testimony

One of the central figure’s in Syed’s 2000 murder trial was a cell phone tower expert witness who the prosecution used to place the defendant at the scene of Lee’s burial.  In 2000, the state called FBI Special Agent Abraham Waranowitz to testify about how cell phone tower triangulation could identify a person’s location.  Waranowitz discussed two incoming calls to Adnan’s cell phone which arguably made it likely that he was located in an area where Lee’s body was later found at a time shortly after her death.  Waranowitz’s expert witness testimony was one of the key pieces of evidence prosecutors used to connect Syed to Lee’s death, but the expert’s reliability became a matter of interest for Adnan’s post-conviction defense team.

According to Syed’s legal team, his initial lawyer received a communication from AT&T which provided instructions on how to read and interpret cell phone activity with a notable disclaimer regarding locating phones that read, “Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will not be reliable information for location.”  Waranowitz’s expert testimony focused only on incoming calls, which, according to the AT&T information, are not reliable for location identification, however, Syed’s trial attorney declined to press the expert on that information.  Attorneys for Syed argued that this failure to properly cross-examine an expert witness represented a grossly negligent failure by Adnan’s trial lawyer.

Appeals Judge Grants Adnan Syed a New Trial Citing Expert Testimony

Judge Welch agreed with Syed’s legal team, and found the failure to question the state’s cell phone tower expert about a notable flaw in his conclusion to be a key factor in granting the defendant a new trial.  Judge Welch pointed out the state’s expert was “directly contradicted by the disclaimer” and went on to note that “A reasonable attorney would have exposed the misleading nature of the state’s theory by cross-examining Abraham Waranowitz. The record reflects, however, that trial counsel failed to cross-examine Waranowitz about the disclaimer.”

Judge Welch’s ruling does not guarantee Syed a new trial, but with a sound legal reasoning and legitimate questions about the reliability of the expert witness who helped put the defendant in jail, Adnan’s legal team has expressed optimism that the ruling will survive appeals.  Should Adnan Syed be officially granted a new trial, his high-profile legal team will certainly present new cell phone expert witness testimony to contradict the state’s key piece of evidence which connected Syed to the scene of Lee’s burial.

Expert Witness Testifies During Post-Conviction Hearing of Serial’s Adnan Syed

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.