Adnan Syed, the Baltimore man who has spent the last 18 years in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and was the subject of the hit podcast Serial, enjoyed a court victory on Thursday when an appeals court ruled he was deserving of a new trial.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals voted 2–1 to find that Syed's "Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by trial counsel’s failure to investigate McClain as a potential alibi witness."
That potential alibi witness, Asia McClain, claimed to have seen Syed in their high school library during the time prosecutors said Lee was murdered.
Syed's current lawyer has argued that his original defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, had fallen "below the standard of reasonable judgment" during the original trial by not investigating McClain or calling her to testify as an alibi witness. Gutierrez died in 2004.
The judge in the 2016 decision also questioned the cell phone data used in the original trial that placed Syed where Lee's body was found.
Thursday's decision affirmed a June 2016 lower court ruling from Judge Martin P. Welch, who had also granted Syed a new trial and vacated his conviction.
"Trial counsel's deficient performance prejudiced Syed's defense," the two Special Appeals judges wrote, "because, but for trial counsel's failure to investigate [McClain], there is a reasonably probability that McClain's alibi testimony would have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed's involvement [in] Hae's murder, and thus 'the result of the proceedings would have been different.'"
The case was remanded to a lower court for a new trial on the original charges, with costs for the appeal to be paid by the Baltimore mayor and city council.
The office of the Maryland Attorney General told the Baltimore Sun that it's "currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps.” Thursday's ruling could be appealed again to the Court of Appeals, which is the highest appeals court in the state.
C. Justin Brown, Syed's attorney, celebrated the decision.
Rabia Chaudry, Syed's friend who first brought his case to the attention the reporter behind Serial, told BuzzFeed News she was "thrilled" and "hopeful" that Syed would be coming home. "It took 19 years to get this decision and it was 19 years overdue. The state can file a further appeal but we are confident that in the end we will successfully exonerate Adnan," Chaudry said.
Lee, Syed's ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School, went missing in January 1999. Her body was found a month later in a large Baltimore-area park.
After Syed's 2016 court victory, Lee's family issued a statement expressing their disappointment.
"We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae," the family said.
The case received national attention in 2014 when reporter Sarah Koenig examined it for the podcast Serial, which captured the attention of millions and sparked a widespread interest in Syed and his conviction.
The multi-episode podcast explored both the reliability of cell phone data in the case and found that McClain — now McClain Chapman — was not called to testify by Syed's original defense attorney even though she claimed to have been with Syed during the prosecution's timeline of the murder.