Before Steven Avery and Making a Murderer, there was Adnan Syed, the subject of NPR’s Serial podcast, season one. At age 17, Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. As previously reported here, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals remanded Syed’s motion to reopen post-conviction proceedings to the Baltimore County Circuit Court for rehearing. Syed seeks a new trial based on allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. Late last year, the circuit court issued an order reopening the proceedings on remand, as Syed requested. Now, over the last three days of this week (February 3-5), the court will conduct the hearing on Syed’s allegations, including live testimony from several witnesses, pursuant to its most recent scheduling order.
The hearing is confined to two major issues, both of which have elements of possible ineffective assistance and prosecutorial misconduct. First, the alibi witness, Asia McClain. McClain has provided an affidavit stating she was with Syed at the time the State contended the murder of Hae Min Lee took place, but was never contacted—much less called to testify—by Syed’s defense counsel, even though counsel knew of her story. McClain also has suggested prosecutors influenced, perhaps pressured, her not to come forward after Syed’s conviction. Second, cell-tower “ping” evidence. At trial, prosecutors relied on expert testimony interpreting cell-tower “pings” on calls received by Syed on the night of the murder to place him in the area where Lee’s body was found. In a surprising development late last year, Syed’s counsel learned the raw cell-tower data was delivered to the State via fax, and the cover sheet contained the following disclaimer: “Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location” (emphasis original). It remains unclear whether this cover sheet and disclaimer were disclosed to Syed’s now-deceased trial counsel (the cover sheet was not found in her files). But the State’s own expert witness from Syed’s trial has now given an affidavit flatly saying the prosecution did not provide the disclaimer to him and that, if they had, he would not have testified as he did, affirming Syed’s location based on pings related to incoming calls to his cell phone, based on the information provided to him.
Of course, none of this proves Syed’s innocence. Will it be enough to secure a new trial for him? The proceedings this week should give us the answer. Meanwhile, if you didn’t follow Serial in its first season, or just want to revisit it, you can still access it here.