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The first lawyer who represented Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was the focus of the first season of true crime podcast sensation "Serial," failed him by refusing to interview a possible alibi witness who could have been crucial in proving his innocence, his new laywer claims.
Maryland's highest court on Thursday heard arguments in their review of the high-profile case. A panel of seven judges with Maryland's Court of Appeals heard about an hour's worth of arguments from the state and the defense in Syed's long-running case, reviewing a decision that could reinstate Syed's conviction for the slaying of his high school sweetheart.
He was convicted in 2000 of strangling 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a Baltimore park. He's been serving a life sentence ever since.
But a Baltimore judge vacated his conviction two years ago, and a court ordered a new trial after concluding that his trial lawyer was ineffective. The state appealed. Earlier this year, the special appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling. The state appealed that decision, too.
On Thursday, state prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah acknowledged that the trial lawyer for Syed did not contact a key alibi witness, but he asserted that the attorney understood the "gist" of what that particular witness, Asia McClain, might have told her at the time. The attorney in question, Cristina Gutierrez, died of a heart attack in 2004, about four years after Syed was convicted of murder.
"The record is not silent on whether or not Ms. McClain was contacted. The state agrees with that. The record is silent on the critical question of why," he said, suggesting that it's not clear why Gutierrez decided to take one investigative path over another and asserting that it's wrong to conclude that Syed's constitutional right to effective counsel was violated.
The defense team countered that it's entirely irrelevant why Gutierrez failed to contact McClain, who said she saw Syed at a library about the same time prosecutors say his ex-girlfriend was killed in 1999.
Defense attorney Catherine Stetson told the court that Syed's original lawyer's failure to contact the witness were "objectively unreasonable" and any possible reasons don't matter. She said Gutierrez "had an obligation to pursue that witness," among others.
During the hearing, she said that Syed repeatedly asked his lawyer to reach out to McClain.
“Before the trial Mr. Syed asked his lawyer, ‘Did you reach out to Ms. McClain?' She lied. She said, ‘Nothing came of it.’”
After the verdict, Stetson claimed, Gutierrez allegedly admitted that the witness was never contacted.
Stetson added that there was a possible video surveillance tape which was never seen because it was never sought out. That footage could have corroborated McClain's story, Syed's defense claimed.
By late Thursday morning, the Annapolis court wrapped up the day's oral arguments in its review of the case. It's not clear when the panel's review of the Syed case will be completed, although a local reporter wrote that the court will be in recess through January.
After the hearing, Syed’s lawyers told reporters, “One thing I thought that went really great today is we brought in Cate Stetson to do the arguments and she was phenomenal.”
University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said the fact that a lower court had found that there was "ineffective assistance of counsel" was itself remarkable since it happens so rarely. That alone makes Syed's case something of an outlier, he said.
"Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are exceedingly hard to bring. And the bar for what is an effective assistance of counsel is remarkably and shockingly low, with courts actually holding that defendants had effective representation even though their lawyer fell asleep at the trial," Jaros told the Associated Press in a phone interview.
But what also makes Syed's case notable is the huge amount of attention it has received. Syed became a sort of cause celebre due to the hugely popular "Serial" podcast, which debuted in 2014 with its entire first season dedicated to the case.
The show shattered podcast-streaming and downloading records. "Serial" revealed little-known evidence, raising new questions about the case and whether Syed was indeed guilty.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[Photo: Getty Images]
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