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What a retrial for Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ means for his case and others

Last week a judge ordered a new trial for Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 2000 of killing his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee and whose case was at the center of the podcast “Serial.” Syed has maintained his innocence, and his current lawyer said he didn’t think this retrial would’ve ever happened without “Serial,” which was downloaded 100 million times and became a global phenomenon. Syed had been granted a post-conviction hearing, which took place in February.

We asked Daniel Medwed, professor of law and an expert in criminal law and wrongful convictions, to examine the judge’s decision and discuss the legal implications beyond this case.

A Baltimore judge ruled that Syed’s lawyer in his first trial didn’t challenge expert testimony about the reliability of cell tower location evidence, but he reiterated that the first attorney’s failing to contact a potential alibi witness didn’t constitute a failure of duty. What stands out to you the most from the judge’s decision?

What stands out is that the decision reflects the doctrinal hurdles—and the inherent difficulties—in establishing “ineffective assistance of defense counsel” after trial. In order to make this claim, a defendant typically must prove that his trial lawyer not only engaged in deficient performance, but that the particular misstep “prejudiced” the case by affecting the outcome. The judge acknowledged that the trial attorney erred in not contacting the alibi witness in Syed’s case, but found that it did not fundamentally harm the result “because the crux of the State’s case did not rest on the time of the murder.”

In contrast, the judge held that the attorney did provide ineffective assistance with respect to failing to adequately cross-examine the government’s cell phone tower expert; according to the judge, this behavior was deficient and prejudiced the defense in light of the centrality of the cell phone records in placing Syed at the location where the victim’s body was buried.

The upshot is that poor lawyering alone is not enough to constitute ineffective assistance. The alleged inadequacy must be linked to an extremely meaningful moment of the case, as interpreted by the courts in hindsight.

Raising compelling newly discovered evidence of innocence and-or of ineffective assistance of defense counsel are relatively common bases for receiving a new trial.
— Law professor Daniel Medwed

Both Syed’s current lawyer, C. Justin Brown, and the Maryland state attorney’s office have acknowledged that this case will likely end up on appellate courts. What can we expect in terms of next steps in this case?

Maryland prosecutors have 30 days from the date of the judge’s ruling in which to file a Notice of Appeal—and I anticipate they will do so given their lengthy record of opposition to Syed’s efforts to obtain a new trial. That would lead to another round of legal skirmishes in the appellate courts. Even so, appellate courts tend to give deference to trial courts that order new trials in post-conviction hearings, especially in cases like this one where the court conducted an evidentiary hearing and heard much of the evidence firsthand.

This was Syed’s second attempt at a new trial, and Brown said Thursday at a news conference that, “This was the biggest hurdle. It’s really hard to get a new trial.” Why is that so, and are there certain grounds on which new trials are most often granted?

After a defendant is convicted at trial, the presumption of innocence vanishes, replaced by a presumption of guilt. From that point on, the burden lies with the defendant to prove the need for a new trial. This is a heavy load to bear.  Advocates of putting a heavy post-conviction burden on defendants and limiting legal remedies after trial often cite the principle of finality: that cases at some point must be “final” in order for all the participants to move on with their lives, permit the system to handle new matters, and reinforce the overall legitimacy of the judicial process.

In the direct appeal, the defendant challenges the issues raised and properly vetted in the trial itself. In addition to appealing the conviction, defendants have post-conviction or “collateral” remedies at their disposal to present novel claims, i.e., claims not adequately developed at trial and preserved for review on the direct appeal. The most recent development in the Syed case involved a state post-conviction remedy in Maryland. Raising compelling newly discovered evidence of innocence and-or of ineffective assistance of defense counsel are relatively common bases for receiving a new trial.

I think this case will inspire other inmates nationwide to try to use the media to garner attention to their causes. It is safe to say that the publicity surrounding “Serial” played a role in helping the defense fully develop its claims and (perhaps) encouraging the courts to take a closer look.
— Law professor Daniel Medwed

Are there legal implications of Syed being granted a new trial that extend beyond this case?

Decisions on post-conviction petitions like this are often very fact-specific and idiosyncratic. But this case does add to the legal precedent on ineffective assistance of counsel in Maryland, so it is possible that other defendants in that state may rely on the ruling in submitting their own claims.

More notably, I think this case will inspire other inmates nationwide to try to use the media to garner attention to their causes. It is safe to say that the publicity surrounding “Serial” played a role in helping the defense fully develop its claims and (perhaps) encouraging the courts to take a closer look.

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