Court denies new trial in Serial podcast murder case

Maryland's highest court denied a new trial Friday for a man whose murder conviction was chronicled in the hit podcast Serial.

Maryland's highest court decision is new setback for Adnan Syed's murder conviction

Adnan Syed, whose 2000 murder conviction was thrown into question by the popular Serial podcast, was denied a new trial Friday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Maryland's highest court denied a new trial Friday for a man whose murder conviction was chronicled in the hit podcast Serial.

In a 4-3 opinion, the Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that Adnan Syed's legal counsel was deficient in failing to investigate an alibi witness, but it disagreed that the deficiency prejudiced the case. The court said Syed waived his ineffective counsel claim.

The court reversed a Court of Special Appeals' judgment, sending the case back to that court with directions to reverse a Baltimore Circuit Court judgment granting a new trial.

Syed serving life sentence

Syed is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in 2000 of strangling 17-year-old Hae Min Lee and burying her body in a Baltimore park.

More than a decade later, the popular Serial podcast brought Syed's case to millions of listeners with its debut 2014 season. The show revealed little-known evidence and attracted millions of listeners, shattering podcast-streaming and downloading records.

We will not give up on Adnan Syed.- Justin Brown, Syed's lawyer

In 2016, a lower court ordered a re-trial for Syed on grounds that his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, didn't contact an alibi witness and provided ineffective counsel. The state appealed.

The special appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling last year and the state appealed that decision, too. In the majority opinion, Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene concluded "there is not a significant or substantial possibility that the verdict would have been different," if Syed's lawyer had presented the alibi witness, Asia McClain, who said she saw Syed at a public library in Woodlawn, Md., around the time the state contended Syed killed Lee on Jan. 13, 1999.

Alibi witness at stake

"Ms. McClain would have been an alibi witness who contradicted the defendant's own statements, which were themselves already internally inconsistent; thus Ms. McClain's proffered testimony could have further undermined Mr. Syed's credibility," the court wrote.

The appeals court found that McClain's account focused on "a narrow window of time in the afternoon" of the day Lee disappeared. It said her testimony wouldn't have rebutted the state's evidence about Syed's actions that evening, and at best "would have highlighted Mr. Syed's failure to account precisely for his whereabouts after school" that day.

In its first season in 2014, the Serial podcast followed the Baltimore murder case of Syed, seen here in the fall of his senior year, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. (SerialPodcast.org)

Judge Michele Hotten wrote separately with Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judge Sally Adkins that she would have ordered a new trial. Hotten agreed with the majority's conclusion that Syed's trial counsel's failure to investigate McClain as a potential alibi witness constituted deficient performance, but she wrote that she believed the deficiency "was prejudicial against Mr. Syed."

Syed's lawyer Justin Brown said in a statement that they are "devastated" by the decision "but we will not give up on Adnan Syed."

Justice system in 'need of reform'

"Our criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform. The obstacles to getting a new trial are simply too great," Brown said.

"There was a credible alibi witness who was with Adnan at the precise time of the murder and now the Court of Appeals has said that witness would not have affected the outcome of the proceeding. We think just the opposite is true. From the perspective of the defendant, there is no stronger evidence than an alibi witness."

Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement that "we are pleased with the Court's decision."

"Justice was done for Hae Min Lee and her family," Frosh said. Thiru Vignarajah, a special assistant attorney general who worked on the case, said the state always said the conviction was "just and supported by overwhelming evidence."

"This has been an arduous process for Hae Min Lee's family, and we are hopeful the decision finally brings them a measure of comfort and closure," Vignarajah said.