After 16 years, man in 'Serial' murder case to get new trial

AP News
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Posted: Jul 01, 2016 4:33 PM
After 16 years, man in 'Serial' murder case to get new trial

BALTIMORE (AP) — The family of a murdered teenager is grieving again after her accused killer, whose case has become a cause celebre thanks to a wildly popular podcast, was granted a new trial.

Adnan Syed, now 35, was convicted in 2000 of strangling 17-year-old Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a shallow grave and sentenced to life in prison. But on Thursday, a judge's decision to order a new trial for Syed, whose case is at the center of the "Serial" podcast, is opening old wounds for Lee's family.

"We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case," Lee's family wrote. "We continue to grieve. We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae. While we continue to put our faith in the courts and hope the decision will be reversed, we are very disappointed by the Judge's decision. "

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ordered a new trial for Syed on Thursday after determining that his attorney failed in her duty when she didn't challenge the testimony of a state cell tower analyst whose data linked Syed to Lee's burial site.

At a post-conviction hearing in early February, Syed's attorneys argued he deserved a retrial on grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, didn't contact Asia McClain Chapman, an alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the Woodlawn library about the same time prosecutors say Lee was killed.

Additionally, Syed's current attorneys argued cell tower data linking Syed's phone to the burial site on the day of Lee's killing was misleading because it was presented to jurors without a cover sheet warning that incoming call data was unreliable.

In Welch's order, he disagreed that Gutierrez erred when she failed to contact Chapman, or that prosecutors breached their duty by withholding exculpatory evidence. But Welch did agree that Syed's attorney provided "ineffective assistance for the failure to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert about the reliability of cell tower location evidence" that placed him near the burial site.

The state had argued that because Syed didn't raise the issue of his trial attorney's failure to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert in a prior proceeding, he waived his right to make it an issue now. But the judge ruled that Syed didn't "intelligently or knowingly" waive his right to raise the issue, noting that he never completed his high school degree.

"Requiring a layman who lacks a complete high school education to understand the intricacies of cellular network design and the legal ramifications of trial counsel's failures to challenge the evidence would be inconsistent with the spirit of the Sixth Amendment," the judge wrote.

The judge said the attorney's performance "fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment" when she failed to confront the state's expert.

At a news conference, Syed's attorney Justin Brown said he "fully expects" the state to appeal the judge's decision. But he said he and the rest of the defense team have "dug our heels in" and remain determined to fight for Syed, including requesting that he be released from jail while awaiting retrial.

In a statement, the state attorney general's office said that although Welch ruled in its favor on some issues, "there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts."

"The State's responsibility remains to pursue justice, and to defend what it believes is a valid conviction," the statement concludes.

The podcast, which debuted in the winter of 2014, attracted millions of listeners and shattered records for the number of times a podcast has been streamed and downloaded. The loyal army of listeners often acted as armchair detectives, uncovering new evidence and raising new questions about the case.

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Associated Press writers Alana Durkin Richer in Richmond, Virginia, Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, and Kasey Jones in Baltimore contributed to this report.