Adnan Syed's conviction reinstated by Maryland Court of Appeals

Court rules Adnan Syed not entitled to a new trial, in case that formed basis for “Serial” podcast— and new HBO docu-series premiering Sunday March 10 on HBO.

Maryland's Court of Appeals has reinstated Adnan Syed's conviction in the murder of Hae Min Lee.

The court's opinion was filed on a Friday afternoon, two days before a four-part HBO documentary about the case premieres. Weird.

Excerpt from State of Maryland v. Adnan Syed, No. 24, September Term, 2018. Opinion by Greene, J. [PDF Link]:


The Court of Appeals held that under the deficient performance prong of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), at a minimum, Respondent's trial counsel had a duty to contact a potential alibi witness to investigate or explore that person's background and potential
as an alibi. The failure of Respondent's trial counsel to contact an alibi witness identified by Respondent constituted deficient performance under the first prong of the Strickland test. The second prong of the Strickland test asks whether trial counsel's deficient performance resulted in prejudice. The Court of Appeals held that given the totality of the evidence against Respondent, there was not a significant or substantial possibility that the jury would have reached a different verdict had his trial counsel presented the alibi witness.


The Court of Appeals held that an individual who advanced a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in his post-conviction petition, filed pursuant to the Uniform Postconviction Procedure Act, but failed to assert all grounds upon which that claim is made, cannot later assert other grounds upon which the ineffective assistance of counsel claim could have been premised.

Thus, the Court held that the waiver provision of the Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act, Criminal Procedure Article, § 7-106(a), applied in this case to bar an allegation upon which the ineffective assistance of counsel claim could have been argued but was not, because the Respondent's ineffective assistance of counsel claims had already been fully litigated.

In the present case, we are asked to reconsider the decision of a post-conviction court that granted the Respondent, Adnan Syed, a new trial. That decision was affirmed in part and reversed in part by our intermediate appellate court with the ultimate disposition— a new trial—remaining in place. The case now stands before us, twenty years after the murder of the victim, seventeen-year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee ("Ms. Lee"). We review the legal correctness of the decision of the post-conviction court and decide whether certain actions on the part of Respondent's trial counsel violated Respondent's right to the effective assistance of counsel.


We shall not endeavor to replicate the thorough, carefully-written and well organized Opinion, penned by then-Chief Judge Patrick Woodward, of the Court of Special Appeals in this case. For a more exhaustive review of the underlying facts, evidence presented at trial, and subsequent procedural events involving Respondent's (hereinafter "Respondent" or "Mr. Syed") conviction of first-degree murder of his ex-girlfriend, we direct readers to the Opinion of that court. Syed v. State, 236 Md. App. 183, 181 A.3d 860 (2018) ("Syed"). For purposes of our review of the issues before us, we shall include relevant facts as necessary as well as an abbreviated recitation of the significant procedural markers in this case's sojourn.

On February 25, 2000, a jury sitting in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Mr. Syed of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment of Ms. Lee. Mr. Syed challenged his conviction on direct appeal. In an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed his conviction on March 19, 2003. Syed v. State, No. 923, Sept. Term 2000. On May 28, 2010, Mr. Syed filed a petition for post conviction relief, which he supplemented on June 27, 2010. In that petition, Mr. Syed alleged that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and in so alleging lodged claims against his trial counsel, sentencing counsel, and appellate counsel. In the post-conviction petition, Mr. Syed argued nine bases for his claim that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Syed, 236 Md. App. at 206-07, 181 A.3d at 872-73 (listing the nine bases on which Mr. Syed claimed his trial counsel or appellate counsel were ineffective). Of relevance to our inquiry is that none of the nine bases was a claim that his trial counsel failed to challenge an alleged Brady1 violation regarding the admission of evidence that potentially undermined the reliability of cell tower location evidence that was used as part of the State's case.

Mr. Syed did raise and argue that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate or call Asia McClain ("Ms. McClain") as an alibi witness. After a two-day hearing on October 11, 2012 and October 25, 2012, the post-conviction court issued an order and memorandum in which it denied post-conviction relief on January 6, 2014.

Thereafter, Mr. Syed filed a timely application for leave to appeal, which presented the issue of his trial counsel's failure to interview or investigate Ms. McClain as a potential
alibi witness.

Subsequent to his filing of an application for leave to appeal, Mr. Syed supplemented his application for leave to appeal and requested that the Court of Special Appeals remand the case for the post-conviction court to consider an affidavit from Ms. McClain.

The intermediate appellate court granted Mr. Syed's request and issued a limited remand order in which it afforded Mr. Syed "the opportunity to file such a request to re-open the post-conviction proceedings" in the Circuit Court. See Syed, 236 Md. App. at 210, 181 A.3d at 875 (reciting the Remand Order in relevant part). Upon remand by the Court of Special Appeals and as part of his request to the Circuit Court to reopen his post-conviction proceedings, Mr. Syed filed a request for the Circuit Court to consider, for the first time, a new basis for his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel related to a purported Brady violation concerning the cell tower location evidence. Mr. Syed continued to maintain his argument that his trial counsel's failure to pursue Ms. McClain as an alibi witness amounted to ineffective assistance of
counsel. The Circuit Court granted Mr. Syed's request to reopen his post-conviction proceedings to review both of the aforementioned issues.
After a five-day hearing, the post-conviction court issued an order, accompanied by a thorough memorandum, in which it denied relief to Mr. Syed on the issue of his counsel's failure to investigate Ms. McClain as an alibi witness. The post-conviction court concluded that although Mr. Syed's trial counsel was deficient for not contacting Ms. McClain,
counsel's failure to investigate Ms. McClain's claim did not prejudice Mr. Syed. Next, the post-conviction court concluded that Mr. Syed waived his claim of a Brady violation with respect to the cell tower location evidence because he had not raised the claim in his post conviction petition. Finally, with respect to Mr. Syed's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel concerning his trial counsel's failure to challenge the cell tower location evidence, the post-conviction court first determined that Mr. Syed did not knowingly and intelligently
waive this claim. Then, the post-conviction court reasoned that Mr. Syed's trial counsel's failure to challenge the cell tower information was in fact deficient and that this deficiency prejudiced Mr. Syed.

As a result, the post-conviction court vacated the convictions and
granted Mr. Syed a new trial.

And in related news, there's a new HBO series about Adnan Syed and the woman he may or may not have killed.