Adnan Syed’s conviction reinstated by Maryland Court of Appeals

Originally published at:

Court rules Adnan Syed not entitled to a new trial, in case that formed basis for “Serial” podcast— and new HBO docu-series premiering Sunday March 10 on HBO.


Uh, can someone ELI5 please?


After a very superficial read-through:

Syed’s lawyer’s made an argument that the conviction should be overturned based on ineffective assistance of counsel, citing a bunch of decisions of his trial and appellate lawyers but mainly the trial lawyer’s failure to investigate a potential alibi witness.

Under the Strickland test the court references, in order to violate the 6th Amendment, the attorney’s conduct must (1) fall below an objectively reasonable minimum standard AND (2) make it reasonably probable that the outcome would have been different otherwise. In other words, to vacate a conviction, the counsel’s conduct must be objectively unreasonable and have actually made a difference in the outcome of the trial. For example, if a defendant’s lawyer falls asleep during closing statements but the state still has a signed confession and video of the defendant committing the crime, the conviction is going to stand.

The Maryland SC here was basically saying that the failure to investigate the alibi witness violated standard of due diligence the attorney owed, BUT it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial given all the other evidence the prosecution had.

There are also some procedural issues about when one must raise arguments about ineffective assistance, resulting that some of the issues weren’t properly before the court and were waived.

ETA: Maryland’s appeals structure confused me–this was not the SC of Maryland, it was the Court of Appeals reviewing a decision by some weird middle ground appellate court


Maryland is one of the states whose “Court of Appeals” is its highest state court, kind of like New York (which further confounds everyone by calling its trial-level court the “supreme court”)–so you had it right but for the terminology the first time.


Dammit, what a dumb system, designed to entrap and expose lazy people who are too incurious and/or dim to figure out the state-specific terminology.

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This is truly one of the most painfully stupid legal decisions I’ve ever read (and I’ve read plenty). At the trial court level the alibi witness was found credible, which the Court of Appeals had to accept. Thus, their decision is that a credible alibi witness who can place Syed elsewhere at the time of the crime (or so close to it as to render the crime virtually impossible) wouldn’t have impacted the outcome. What stronger defense evidence exists than credible testimony that the defendant was elsewhere at the time of the crime? Particularly where, as here, there is no witness to the crime and no forensic evidence. Just a witness who testified he was with Syed after the crime and whose story the state admitted was inconsistent. Reasonable doubt can be created (and often is) from FAR less than a credible witness who can place your client elsewhere at the time of the crime.

The justices rendering this decision know that. They must. Which leads inexorably to the question of what the real reason for this decision might be. This is corruption pure and simple. The justices are absolutely trying to avoid the public embarrassment of admitting this high profile conviction was based on the coerced testimony of an admitted liar and cell phone tower evidence they know damn well isn’t scientifically valid. No practicing attorney can realistically believe that a credible alibi witness wouldn’t be likely to change the outcome of a criminal case. None. Zero. It defies belief.


And who also testified Syed showed him Hae’s body in the trunk, and who testified he helped Syed bury Hae’s body.

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Yes. Kind of calls that witness’s account into question if a credible witness places Syed elsewhere at the time the crime actually happened. That’s the definition of reasonable doubt.


No, it isn’t. We do not know what time crime actually happened. We believe the murder happened in the window of time after Asia spoke with Adnan in the library, and before Adnan met Jay. Ultimately, Jay’s testimony is the defining factor here: Adnan shows up with Hae’s body in the trunk of her car, and asks Jay to help him bury Hae’s body.

Read the opinion again. One of the Court’s findings of fact that the crime took place before the 2:36 call. That agrees with what the prosecution said in it’s opening statement at the original trial. More importantly, it agrees with what the judge found upon originally overturning the conviction, which is binding on the Court of Appeals unless clearly erroneous. Regardless, she didn’t show up to pick up cousin at 3:30 and Asia had him in the library until at least 2:40. Unless Syed had rocket shoes he wasn’t going to catch, much less kill Lee in that time. It would have to be one in a million, I.e. reasonable doubt.

A prosecutor defending his dubious conviction? Unprecedented. I’m sold now. I don’t know why I ever questioned anything. In fact, I’ll never question authority again. I’ll just trust the government. They’ve never gotten anything wrong… Except the hundreds of people exonerated from death row. But I’m sure that’s totally different. Independent thought I’d the devil. Just trust what they tell you.

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Look, I believed Adnan was innocent . . . until I listened to Serial and looked at the prosecution’s case.

To believe Adnan is innocent:

  1. Jay lied
  2. Jenn lied
  3. Don lied
  4. Adnan’s teacher lied
  5. The school nurse lied
  6. The detectives lied
  7. The medical expert lied
  8. The cell phone expert is wrong
  9. Those who said he asked for a ride were wrong
  10. Everybody is either lying or mistaken except for Adnan

Ultimately, the case comes down to this: Adnan shows up with Hae’s body in the trunk of her car, recruits Jay to help him bury Hae’s body, and Adnan either received or made a call from Leakin Park the evening that Hae disappeared, the very park in which her body was found in five weeks later. For that, Adnan has no explanation.

The Syedtologists will insist no, there’s still reasonable doubt, a man is in prison for a crime he did not commit, hundreds of people are in prison who should not be.

This is not one of those cases.

  1. We know Jay lied. The prosecution admitted he was a liar at the time. Then Serial came out and he gave an Intercept interview with an entirely new version of events that renders the cell phone evidence irrelevant.

  2. Jenn is Jay’s friend. Not hard to believe they made up a story for the reward money.

  3. Don is irrelevant. He didn’t say anything bad about Syed.

  4. Adnan’s teacher has no real evidence. Whenever someone dies they’re suddenly everyone’s best friend. When someone is murdered people imagine they knew something intriguing.

  5. The school nurse said that after the fact Syed seemed to be faking sadness/catatonia. Faking symptoms to get out of class doesn’t make one a murderer.

  6. The detectives also had no evidence other than Jay.

  7. The medical expert said he found fibers under Hae’s body that didn’t match Jay or Syed. He also missed that fact that she had frontal lividity despite supposedly being buried sideways and supposedly pretzeled in the trunk of a car on her side for eight hours.

  8. The cell phone expert testified at the appeal that he’d never seen the AT&T cover sheet saying incoming calls aren’t usable for determining location and that he would have testified differently at trial if he’d known. That’s why the conviction was overturned in the first place.

  9. If he was planning to kill Hae do you really believe he’d ask for a ride after school in front of a bunch of other people? Also, do you believe that the people who said they saw her later tell him she couldn’t give him a ride because something came up are lying? That’s the whole point here. Hae said she was in a hurry after school and couldn’t give him a ride. Asia says she was with Syed in the library until 2:40. If Hae was in a hurry she’d have been long gone by 2:40. Remember, Asia was pissed because her boyfriend was LATE coming to get her. School had been out for a while.

  10. Other than Jay, there is nobody else who even purports to have actual evidence of a crime.

Here’s the thing. At my last firm we won an acquittal for a guy who confessed to arson on tape. How? The timeline was too tight. We had a witness who placed him elsewhere at a time when it would have been difficult, but not impossible, to have committed the crime. The guy recanted his confession and the jury acquitted. It wasn’t amazing lawyering that did it. It was the timeline. The timeline in Syed’s case is even tighter if Asia is allowed to testify. It doesn’t work. So then you’ve got Asia on one hand and Jay, who isn’t credible, on the other. A competent lawyer would point out that the timeline just doesn’t work. That the fibers found underneath the body didn’t belong to either Syed or Jay so someone else had to be there. That frontal lividity makes no sense if Jay’s story is remotely true. That literally no physical evidence places Syed at the scene. That Jay testified he didn’t leave Jenn’s house until almost 4:00 yet somehow also claimed he was in the car with Syed for the Nisha call almost an hour earlier. The alibi, the fibers, lividity - those things are really good evidence. Jay’s shaky testimony and some cell phone evidence that AT&T says can’t be relied on for location are crappy evidence. That’s reasonable doubt every day of the week and twice on Sunday. You can take that to the bank.


You sound like an excellent lawyer, and you’re raising a lot of doubt for me. Three items continue to throw me:

Jay helped Adnan bury Hae’s body, which is corroborated with the cell phone calls, and Jay leading detectives to Hae’s car. Moreover, I neither believe–nor understand why–Jay would plead guilty to being an after-the-fact accessory to murder if he didn’t help Adnan. The collateral facts of Jay’s story change, but the material facts do not.

On the night of the murder, police called Adnan, looking for Hae. If the police called you looking for your ex-girlfriend, saying she was missing, do you know where she is? You’d immediately call her or text her–hey, the cops are looking for you! call your mom and let her know you’re okay! Adnan didn’t–because he knew Hae was dead.

In Adnan’s statements, he doesn’t make any reference to being in the library until after Asia claims she saw him. In all his statements about his whereabouts on the day of the murder, he says he was at the school, from 2:15pm to 3:30pm.

I want to believe Adnan is innocent, but the State of Maryland has convinced me he isn’t.

I wish your firm had represented Adnan at his first trial.

I haven’t meant to imply that your concerns are totally invalid or that every question can be answered. Sometimes I think we have to separate nagging uncertainties from reasonable doubt. Not all questions can be answered. Nor do they have to be to create reasonable doubt.

That said, I can at least take a shot at answering these questions.

Jay SAYS he helped bury Hae’s body BUT that is NOT corroborated by the cell phone calls. Again, the whole reason Syed was granted a new trial in the first place was because the court found ineffective assistance of counsel because Syed’s counsel failed to introduce the AT&T cover sheet saying that incoming calls were unreliable for location. The call that supposedly placed Syed in Leakin Park at the time of burial was an incoming call.

PLUS, Jay himself now says that he didn’t see Hae’s body in the afternoon and the burial didn’t happen until at least midnight. So the calls are irrelevant. Which has to lead one to question how Jay knew to provide a version of events, including a lot of random turns, trips to a lake to smoke pot, etc. that would somehow match up with the cell phone “evidence” when he now says none of that actually happened. Check out the Intercept interview. The material facts change completely. The entire story is unrecognizable. The point being that Jay managed to hit the highlights back then because he was almost certainly coached. Check out the names of the detectives who got sued by wrongfully convicted person Ezra Mable,-Man-Sues-Baltimore-Cops/ That list included Detective Ritz.

As for pleading as an accessory after the fact, I think it is reasonable to think that Jay isn’t terribly bright and was coerced. Either the police came to Jay through the cell phone calls, or he came to them to collect the reward money. Either way he was a talkative guy who just happened to be a suspect in about a half dozen other crimes back in 2009. All of that stuff conveniently disappeared. They couldn’t let a supposed accessory to murder just walk and the police for the first time in anyone’s knowledge found Jay private counsel. It was weird.

And don’t forget that literally everything about Jay’s story is extraordinarily bizarre. Assume Syed is the murderer. Remember in Serial when they drove the route to Best Buy and decided it was possible because they had like two minutes to spare? But think about what had to happen in those two minutes. Syed had to convince Hae to park somewhere out of sight, leap at her and kill her without leaving any physical evidence or himself being injured, then move her body to the trunk without being spotted, and finally run like hell to a pay phone to call… Jay??? Then Jay has to arrive, see a dead body which Syed is surprisingly casual about showing him, and Jay’s reaction is to drive to a park and ride and then drive around looking for weed while Syed apparently makes a quick call to Nisha? Really? I’ve never murdered anyone, but both their reactions strike me as remarkably casual for high school students - one of whom was afraid of his mommy catching him going to prom. Nor does it make any sense to go to track practice late (which nobody remembers), get stoned at whatever that lady’s name’s house was, and then go to services with one’s family for Ramadan after burying a body that you could have just left at the park and ride. Did you see where Hae’s body was buried? It is WAY off the road and we’re supposed to believe two stoned teenagers carried her out there, found a depression under a log, covered the body with dirt and debris all while stoned and without flashlights in a burgeoning ice storm? Nothing about Jay’s story makes a lick of sense unless you feel some obligation to match it up with the cell phone records, which weren’t accurate anyway. Conversely, the cell phone records do make sense if you’re a couple of teenagers driving around aimlessly eating some Big Macs to break the Ramadan fast and smoking a little weed.

You know who else never called Hae? Don. Her boyfriend. Not once. (text barely existed in 99 and Syed only had a cell phone for one day at the time. Hae didn’t have one.) Both he and Syed can’t be the killer, right? So if the failure to call is evidence that one is a murderer there is a real problem. I suspect it is more likely that they both thought Hae’s parents were overreacting and Syed went to Ramadan services and didn’t think about it again until school started up the following week (school was cancelled the next day). Also worth noting that supposedly the entire idea behind Syed getting a cell phone in his uncle’s name was so he could make the “come and get me call” to Jay. Think about that though. If that was true, why would he call Hae and give her the number? If the police hadn’t found that number they never would have called him, or subpoenaed the phone records, or known Jay existed. Just one more thing that makes absolutely no sense if Syed is the killer.

Finally, Syed’s story was always that he didn’t recall specifically what he did that day because it was generally unremarkable, but he LIKELY was at school while waiting for track practice to start. Asia is the one who has the specific memory of the event. I don’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday. (Really. That’s not just an example.) By the time Syed gave a statement six or more weeks had passed.

That is why Asia’s testimony would have been so crucial. She remembered seeing him until about 2:40, and at the first trial Debbie testified to seeing him at the guidance counselor’s office around 2:45. Those two things alone make it impossible that he committed the murderer. Which is why it is absolutely inconceivable that Syed’s attorney didn’t follow up on the alibi witness. With that testimony she could have put Syed on the stand to say that he didn’t recall at the time of his statement what he had done that day, but that Asia’s testimony refreshed his recollection that he was at the library and then decided to walk over to the guidance counselor after that where he talked to Debbie, which he would then recall because he knew it was the same day he talked to Asia. Then, if his lawyer was any good, he’d also “remember” that he spoke to his coach at track practice about the prayer he was going to lead for Ramadan services the next day (his coach only remembered the conversation generally but couldn’t recall the date). That uses one solid witness (Asia), solidifies Debbie’s former testimony through Syed (Debbie said she couldn’t remember at the second trial, but her prior testimony had been introduced), and gives a factual basis for dating his coach’s recollection about the prayer. It gives the jury a reasonable, countervailing narrative where Gutierrez left a black hole. The bottom line is that if nobody can place your client at the scene they shouldn’t testify because it rarely helps. But if someone says “I saw that guy do it/I saw the body” your client has to say they didn’t do it. They just have to. You have to create an alternate narrative. That should have started with Asia. It didn’t. That has cost Syed his life.


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