BALTIMORE (AP) — A Maryland appeals court on Thursday upheld a ruling granting a new trial to a man whose conviction in the murder of his high school sweetheart became the subject of the popular podcast “Serial.”
Adnan Syed was convicted in 2000 of killing Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park. He was 17 at the time.
Syed’s story was widely publicized in the 2014 “Serial” podcast, which cast doubt on his guilt and inspired armchair investigators to unearth new information.
The show attracted millions of listeners and shattered records for the number of times a podcast has been streamed or downloaded.
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A lower court judge vacated Syed’s conviction in 2016. Prosecutors appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state’s intermediate appeals court.
Syed’s lawyer, C. Justin Brown, said he is ready for a new trial.
“If the state is so confident in their case, and if they’re so confident that Syed is guilty, they should just try the case. We’re ready to try the case,” Brown said.
Prosecutors declined to comment or to say whether they will appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court.
“We are currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said in an email.
In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge appeals court panel agreed with Brown that his trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate a potential alibi witness who said she saw Syed at a public library in the town of Woodlawn, Maryland, around the time the state claimed Syed killed Hae.
The panel said in its written decision that if testimony from Asia McClain had been presented to the jury, it would have “directly contradicted the State’s theory of when Syed had the opportunity and did murder Hae,” and could have created reasonable doubt in at least one juror’s mind and led to a different outcome.
“In considering the totality of the evidence at Syed’s trial with the potential impact of McClain’s alibi testimony, this Court holds that there is a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel’s deficient performance, the result of Syed’s trial would have been different,” Chief Judge Patrick Woodward wrote for the majority.
During a hearing in June, Thiru Vignarajah, a special assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the state, said it was reasonable not to seek out McClain because Syed’s lawyer was focused on an alibi placing him at Woodlawn High School, not the library.
“It’s the kind of thing that the defense attorney would have to make a judgment about,” he said.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff disagreed with the majority, saying Syed had failed to overcome the presumption that his trial lawyer’s failure to contact McClain was based on reasonable trial strategy. Graeff said she would have reversed the lower court’s ruling granting Syed a new trial.
Syed has been behind bars since his arrest in February 1999.
Brown said that after Syed learned the court had upheld the ruling granting him a new trial, he wanted to “convey his deep gratitude and thanks from the bottom of his heart for all those people who have supported him this long and all those people who have believed in him.”
Brown said “Serial” had an enormous impact on the case, generating attention that helped Syed’s defense team locate McClain and bring her to Baltimore for a post-conviction hearing.
“And ‘Serial’ has also helped to build this groundswell of support for us and for Adnan and for the case, and that has really fueled these efforts and allowed us to keep fighting on the way that we have,” Brown said.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report from Richmond.