New HBO Documentary Renews Interest in Adnan Syed's Case

Amber Garrett - Author

Apr. 27 2020, Updated 1:54 p.m. ET

is adnan syed guilty
Source: HBO

A few years ago, a podcast spin-off of NPR's This American Life had everyone with a smartphone obsessed with the murder of Hae-Min Lee and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who had been in prison for the crime for nearly 20 years.

Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig, had listeners divided over the evidence and debating the guilt or innocence of Syed, who was 17 at the time of the murder. In fact, a fund for his defense helped bolster efforts to reopen his case.

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Now, more than four years later, Syed still sits in jail as he awaits a final decision from the highest court in Maryland over whether to overturn his conviction.

adnan syed hae min lee
Source: HBO
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Is Adnan Syed guilty?

The question of Syed's guilt or innocence is still up for debate, but Judge Martin Welch of Baltimore City Circuit Court granted a new trial in 2016 on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel by defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez, who passed away due to complications from multiple sclerosis and diabetes in 2004. Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001 for circumstances unrelated to Syed's case.

adnan syed woodlawn high school
Source: HBO

The library where Asia McClain claims Adnan Syed was at the proposed time of Hae Min Lee's murder.

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In a post-conviction relief hearing in late 2015, Judge Welch heard testimony from Asia McClain, a former classmate of the victim and defendant, who had come forward early on in proceedings as an alibi witness, but was not pursued by Syed's lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, as a defense witness. Asia's testimony indicates she spoke with Syed in the library across the street from school during the time the state argues the defendant was killing his ex-girlfriend in a Best Buy parking lot several miles away.

Syed's current lawyer, C. Justin Brown, also argued that Gutierrez failed to provide adequate counsel when she did not cross-examine an expert witness regarding cell tower location evidence. The testimony, which was based on incomplete information provided by the district attorney, was instrumental in a jury finding Syed guilty. 

The witness who testified that incoming call data could be used to accurately pinpoint a suspect's location was not provided with a cover sheet accompanying the call list, which explicitly stated incoming calls were unreliable for pinpointing location. At the conclusion of the post-conviction relief hearing, Judge Welch vacated Syed's conviction, finding that Gutierrez had provided ineffective counsel and that the call sheet evidence was compelling enough to have swayed at least one juror.

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Since that ruling, the state has taken the case up the chain in Maryland's judicial system, with the state's second-highest court affirming Judge Welch's ruling. On November 29, 2018, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, heard oral arguments from the state and Syed's legal team. They have not yet published their decision but are expected to release their ruling in or before August 2019.

Is Adnan Syed still in jail?

If the seven-person panel rules in favor of upholding Welch's decision, it will be up to the city of Baltimore to decide whether to retry Adnan or drop their case against him. Until that decision is made, Syed remains a prisoner at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, where he has resided for 19 years. Judge Welch denied a request that he be released on bail while awaiting a new trial.

Since the hearing in November, Syed's team filed a supplementary brief last month to support their argument that neglecting to call Asia McClain as a witness was an additional count of ineffective assistance of counsel (the state's argument rests on precedent in an Alabama case that was recently severely undercut by a more recent case in that same state).

To learn more about the ongoing case, check out the four-part HBO documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed set to premiere in March 2019.  

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