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  • Cameron Black

Innocence and Ineffective Assistance: The case of Adnan Syed, subject of hit podcast "Serial"

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

A jury in Baltimore County, Maryland found Adnan Syed guilty of first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery on February 25, 2000. Syed was convicted of strangling his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee whose body was found partially buried in Leakin Park after she was missing for less than a month. This case would have been forgotten long ago had it not been for the hit podcast Serial which investigated the circumstances of Ms. Lee’s death and the subsequent prosecution for her murder.

The intrigue surrounding Adnan Syed’s trial and conviction went viral with the podcast’s investigative reporting into the case. Host and executive producer Sarah Koenig went deep into the facts of the case and had lengthy phone calls with Adnan himself in an attempt to figure out exactly what happened when Ms. Lee disappeared on January 13, 1999. The podcast tracked Ms. Lee’s final days and attempted to re-create the Mr. Syed’s movements in an attempt to explore any possible alibi. The podcast was not couched as an innocence movement for Syed, but instead focused on all of the possibilities and allowed the listener to wonder whether Syed had in fact murdered Hae Min Lee.

Adnan has maintained that he is innocent and that Ms. Lee’s real murderer has been allowed to go free without further investigation by authorities. Several leads have been pursued in the quest to find who Syed’s supporters claim to be the real murderer and Syed’s case now hinges on an appeal. Syed was granted a post-conviction hearing in February 2016. His new attorneys argued that the State withheld exculpatory evidence, and that his trial counsel had failed to call an alibi witness and failed to challenge the reliability of cell tower testimony that placed him in the area of the murder.

In other words, this case essentially comes down to ineffective assistance of counsel. In Strickland v. Washington, Justice O’Connor outlined the test for ineffective assistance under the Sixth Amendment. Under Strickland, the petitioner must prove: (1) that counsel’s performance was deficient; and (2) that deficient performance prejudiced the defendant so as to deprive him of a fair trial. The test boils down to a ‘but for’ test, meaning that but for the deficient counsel, the results would have been different. This is an extremely high bar, of which few claims are able to surmount.

But Syed’s case has managed to overcome this hurdle, at least at one appellate level. On Thursday, March 29th, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that Adnan should be granted a new trial on all charges. Chief Judge Patrick Woodward delivered the opinion for the court in which the court found that Syed’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by trial counsel’s failure to investigate a potential alibi witness named Asia McClain. Ms. McClain stated that she saw Adnan in a public library using a computer at the time of the murder. Syed’s trial counsel’s failure to investigate Ms. McClain’s claims and subsequently call her as an alibi witness at trial directly affected the outcome of the case. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals saw this as a prime example of ineffective assistance. Quoting Strickland, the opinion stated “counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary.” The court ultimately concluded that it was unreasonable for Syed’s trial counsel not to investigate Ms. McClain as an alibi witness, granting Syed a new trial.

The State has the opportunity to appeal the case again to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals or to the Maryland Court of Appeals (the highest court in Maryland). The next steps for Syed will be unclear until the State determines whether it will appeal the ruling. Some familiar with the case and other cases of this nature have posited that the State may offer Syed a plea deal that would have him released from prison with time served. Whether Syed would take a deal that would have him claim responsibility for the murder is another matter altogether. Either way, this case has gripped a nation of followers from its debut on Serial and fans and supporters will be watching closely until it comes to a final resolution.


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