Maryland's top court to hear arguments in "Serial" case

Published 11-29-2018

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BALTIMORE (AP) - Maryland's highest court on Thursday began hearing arguments in the high-profile case of a man whose murder conviction was chronicled in the hit "Serial" podcast that attracted millions of armchair detectives.

A panel of seven judges with Maryland's Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments in Adnan 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.

State prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah on Thursday acknowledged that the late trial lawyer for Syed did not contact a key alibi witness but he asserts that the attorney understood the "gist" of what that witness, Asia McClain, might have said. The attorney in question, Cristina Gutierrez, has since died.

"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 is not clear why Gutierrez decided to take one investigative path over another and that Syed was not provided ineffective counsel.

The court is allowing the state to argue that Syed's trial lawyer was not ineffective and Syed's constitutional right to counsel was never violated. It granted Syed's legal team the chance to make its case touching on key cellphone evidence.

 University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said the fact that a 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 said 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.

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