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What Happened To Adnan Syed's First Attorney, Cristina Gutierrez?
Adnan Syed might not be getting a new trial, but even the courts agree Cristina Gutierrez didn't give him effective legal counsel.
For many armchair detectives inspired by the first season of ultra-popular podcast "Serial," the idea of prosecutorial misconduct was key to the assumption that justice was not served after the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed's subsequent conviction for her death.
Although Syed's lawyer Cristina Gutierrez didn't make an appearance on the first season of “Serial,” which questioned whether Syed was wrongfully convicted for Lee's murder all those years ago, Gutierrez's voice was heard over and over as host Sarah Koenig played back tapes of Syed's original court case, questioning Gutierrez's job performance. Now, HBO’s four-part docuseries “The Case Against Adnan Syed” which premiered on March 10, two days after Syed's conviction was upheld, picks up right where “Serial” left off. Much like the podcast, the Amy Berg-directed film also reexamines Gutierrez's role in Syed's original conviction. So, in the midst of all this speculation over her handling of the case, where is Gutierrez now?
Syed has long maintained that Gutierrez mishandled his case over her failure to investigate his alibi Asia McClain, who claimed she saw Syed in her high school library at the time of the murder. Syed claimed Gutierrez told him at the time that she had investigated the alibi, but “nothing came of it.”
"You can’t make a reasonable decision about what trial strategy you’re going to engage in without calling an alibi witness and asking if that testimony is going to help your case,” said Cate Stetson, another defense attorney of Syed's, during court proceedings last November, reported local station WBAL-TV 11.
Syed’s attorneys also allege Gutierrez didn’t cross-examine the prosecution’s cell phone tower expert, who placed him at the crime scene using cell phone tower records, which Syed's team now argues is unreliable evidence.
Gutierrez is not around to defend herself, however, because she passed away a few years after the case. Her 2004 death was a result of a heart attack, according to her obituary. She was 52. Gutierrez had been suffering from multiple sclerosis, which some speculate may have impacted her performance on Syed's case.
"She was ill,” Dwight Petit, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney and former associate of Gutierrez's, recalled to Oxygen.com. “If she was in some type of physical or mental distress, which is the only thing that I could surmise, that she was not performing at her normal level of competency.”
But in her heyday, Gutierrez was revered as one of Baltimore’s most notorious, prolific — and controversial — criminal defense lawyers. Her cases were routinely high-profile. Gutierrez defended everyone from allegedly corrupt city officials to accused kid killers to serial child molesters to teachers charged with sexually assaulting their students.
“[Gutierrez] had a tremendous reputation,” Petit told Oxygen.com. “She had a reputation as being a very, very meticulous and aggressive defense lawyer that left no stone unturned."
However, in 2001, a year after Syed’s conviction, Gutierrez was disbarred following allegations she drained a trust account containing client funds, according to The Baltimore Sun. She died three years later.
Gutierrez’s son, Roberto, a public school teacher in Seattle, briefly spoke with Oxygen.com by telephone, but declined to comment on Syed's case or his mother’s career. However, in 2015, he told The Sun he first noticed the early symptoms of his mother's multiple sclerosis in the late '90s, shortly before she took the Syed case.
"If my mom didn't give him a good defense, I hope he gets a good defense," he told Sun reporter Justin George in 2015. "I know that was her intention. She really loved her job."
"If there is evidence in the trial that wasn't brought up, I think [Syed] definitely should get a retrial," Gutierrez’s son added back then.
However, Syed saw his murder conviction upheld on Friday, March 8 after Maryland's highest court disagreed that Gutierrez prejudiced the case during the original trial proceedings.
Maryland's Court of Appeals found that Gutierrez, was indeed "deficient" for not looking into alibi witness McClain. But in 4-3 opinion, the court disagreed it would have impacted the ruling in Syed's case. The court also ruled Syed waived his right to raise the ineffective counsel claim.
The decision reverses a 2018 ruling from a lower court, which granted Syed the right to a new trial over Gutierrez's alleged missteps.