Adnan Syed, the incarcerated subject of the popular podcast Serial, was given hope for overturning his life sentence for the alleged 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate, when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed Feb. 6 to grant him an appeal.
Syed is arguing that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, was ineffective in part because she failed to “investigate and call to testify alibi witness Asia McClain,” according to court documents. McClain had written a letter to Syed in which she said she had seen him at a library during the time when state prosecutors claimed he murdered Lee.
Gutierrez was “disbarred by consent” in 2001 and decided to resign from practicing law rather than fight her clients’ complaints of wrongdoing. She died in 2004.
In a statement on the Serial website, Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of Serial said, “In Episode 10 of the podcast, I reported that this appeal was alive by a thread. Now, I’d say it’s more of a . . . well-made string, maybe.”
According to Koenig, a panel of judges will hear oral arguments in June from the state and from Syed’s side of the case. “Neither side can bring in new evidence or witnesses,” she wrote. “Then the court will either deny or grant Adnan further relief. That relief could be a whole new trial in the circuit court, or it could be that the circuit court just has to allow Adnan to present new evidence, such as Asia McClain’s testimony.”
An outcome is not expected soon, as the case is likely headed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. According to Koenig, “If this current panel of judges grants Adnan relief, the state is likely to appeal to the highest court; and likewise, if it denies Adnan relief, Adnan’s attorney will probably do the same. So it’s bound to grind on for a long while yet.”
It’s unclear whether Serial’s popularity and reporting affected the granting of Syed’s appeal. Previous appeals in 2003 and 2010 were both denied.
The chances of winning a case based on an ineffective counsel argument are low, according to Colin Miller, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, who told Vox in December that “that claim is successful between 1 and 8 percent of the time.”