Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was the focus of the first season on the extremely popular “Serial” podcast, has moved closer to a new trial. But it’s not necessarily a done deal.
On Thursday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, by a 2-1 ruling, ordered a new trial for Syed on all charges. It upheld a lower court that ruled similarly in 2016.
Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal this decision to the state’s highest court or proceed with a new trial.
For now, however, Syed and his lawyers are celebrating the win.
“He’s happy, he’s very happy,” lawyer C. Justin Brown told CNN. “He’s been waiting 18 years to hear this.”
The Maryland attorney general’s office, which could appeal, is “reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said.
The long and winding road
Syed, 36, had been serving a life sentence in the slaying of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Her strangled body was found in a shallow grave in a park one month after she went missing in January 1999.
Prosecutors relied on testimony from a friend, Jay Wilds, who said he helped Syed dig a hole for Lee’s body. To corroborate his account, prosecutors presented cell phone records and expert witness testimony to place Syed at the site where Lee was buried.
He was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison on murder and kidnapping charges.
In 2016, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial, based on claims that Syed’s trial lawyer failed to cross-examine the expert witness about the reliability of cell tower location evidence.
The state appealed the 2016 order, leading to Thursday’s decision by the court of special appeals.
Brown is optimistic they will get a new trial. He said he hopes the state will forgo an appeal and seek to retry the case.
“If we go to trial, we will win that trial,” Brown told CNN.
As for whether Syed will be released on bail before a new trial, Brown told CNN: “It’s something we’d consider revisiting.”
The first season of the “Serial” podcast, consisting of 12 episodes about the case, was downloaded more than 40 million times in 2014.
The podcast dug into a lead that would give Syed an alibi.
Before his trial, Syed gave his lawyers two letters from Asia McClain, a fellow student who said she saw Syed at a library around the time of the murder.
Her account did not make it into the defense case, leading Syed to claim ineffective counsel for failing to contact her.
The judge at the post-conviction hearing sided with Syed, and prosecutors appealed.
In Thursday’s decision, two judges from the Court of Special Appeals agreed with the merits of the ineffective counsel claim, while the dissenting judge said there are times when lawyers have good reasons not to contact a potential alibi witness.
Syed’s trial lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, died before his post-conviction appeal.