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Serial's Adnan Syed Denied New Trial

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By George Khoury, Esq. on March 11, 2019 1:05 PM

The case of Adnan Syed, which shot into the national spotlight thanks to the Serial podcast, just hit a big hurdle, right after the debut of an HBO mini-series.

The Maryland Court of Appeals just reversed an appellate panel's earlier decision to reverse Adnan Syed's conviction and order a new trial. And with all the hype the press has created surrounding the case, it seems all but certain that the case will likely be appealed until SCOTUS chimes in, though given the reasoning of state high court, that might be unlikely, at least on this issue.

More to the Story

The earlier decision to reverse Syed's conviction and order a retrial was based upon ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to contact a defense alibi witness. Although the podcasts and media narratives have put a lot of focus on this uncalled alibi witness, there's more to the story and the majority opinion lays it out. On reconsideration the state's highest appellate court decided that the trial counsel's failure wasn't consequential, as the overwhelming weight of the evidence doomed Syed.

The opinion explains that Syed's attorney's failure to interview a potential alibi witness doesn't equate to ineffective assistance of counsel because, while the justices agree that the failure was deficient, it did not prejudice Syed. The rationale behind the potentially strategic decision to not use the alibi witness, as the Maryland high court explains, was potentially sound (we'll never know the real reason as the attorney in question is dead). The alibi witness's testimony would have contradicted Syed's statements to the police, and as such, would have harmed his credibility, despite potentially providing an alibi.

Additionally, there may not have been a need to contact the potential witness personally as the attorney was aware of what the witness would testify to.

Strategy and Effect

The big issue at play in this appeal is whether a defense attorney is required to contact all potential alibi witnesses in order to be "effective." And while the state court in Maryland was hoping for a bright-line rule for when the record is silent as to why an attorney did what they did, given the fact intensive inquiry required for both the deficient counsel and prejudice prongs of an ineffective counsel claim, it didn't get one.

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