How 'Serial' Subject Adnan Syed Received a New Trial

Karl Merton Ferron/TNS/Newscom

His lawyer tweeted Friday that Syed is "extremely happy" with the decision.

Adnan Syed, his legal team and his supporters are celebrating the news that he has been granted a new trial. The new trial hinged on information regarding cell tower evidence used in Syed's original trial. Syed's case was brought to the public eye when he was the subject of popular podcast Serial, which questioned whether he was given a fair trial for the 1999 Baltimore murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school ex-girlfriend.

On Friday, Syed's lawyer Justin Brown said Syed has been informed of the decision and is "extremely happy" but "understands we have a long way to go."

Prior to his Serial fame, Syed's request for a post-conviction hearing was denied in 2010. This past November, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch granted Syed's request for a new post-conviction hearing, which was subsequently held in February. Syed's lawyers were able to introduce new information related to potential alibi witness Asia McClain and the reliability of cell tower location evidence.

On Serial and in news stories surrounding Syed's post-conviction hearing, there was a big focus on McClain's testimony that she was with Syed in the library at the time the state claimed he murdered Lee. However, Welch ultimately vacated Syed's sentence because he felt Syed's original defense attorney did not properly discredit cell phone tower evidence.

In Syed's first trial, a cell phone technician testified for the state about phone records showing Syed's cell phone pinging towers in an area near Leakin Park, where Lee's body was buried. Jay Wilds testified that he helped Syed bury the body in the park after Syed killed Lee. However, an AT&T fax cover sheet cast doubt on whether cell phone towers could accurately pinpoint the location of a phone and the technician said his testimony may have been different had he seen that information.

Welch said Syed's first attorney, the late Cristina Gutierrez, "rendered ineffective assistance" in regards to the cell tower evidence.  He wrote, "The court finds that trial counsel's performance fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgment when she failed to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert regarding a disclaimer obtained as part of pre-trial discovery." He said that her ineffective assistance created a "substantial possibility that the result of the trial was fundamentally unreliable."

Rabia Chaudry is the lawyer that connected Serial host Sarah Koenig with Syed. She credits blogger and fellow attorney Susan Simpson with uncovering the cell phone evidence. "If it weren't for her eagle eye [...] we might not have won here," Chaudry told the Baltimore Sun. Chaudry and Simpson worked together on a follow-up podcast to Serial, called Undisclosed.

Syed's attorney Justin Brown said he doesn't think the retrial could have happened without Serial, The New York Times reports. Brown is looking to release Syed on bail. The state has 30 days to file an appeal against Welch's decision.

Judge Welch, however, made it clear his decision was not influenced by the popularity of Serial. “Regardless of the public interest surrounding this case, the court used its best efforts to address the merits of petitioner’s petition for post-conviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court; unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion,” wrote Welch.

Sarah Koenig has yet to release a statement about the decision, or announce whether or not Serial will cover Syed's new trial. She told the Baltimore Sun she was "surprised" by Judge Welch's decision and that she is still processing the news.

Hae Min Lee's family, meanwhile, released a statement through the office of the attorney general. 

"We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve. We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae," reads the statement. "While we continue to put our faith in the courts and hope the decision will be reversed, we are very disappointed by the Judge's decision. We remain thankful to the many many people who have expressed their support for us, and to the State for standing by the true victims and for giving Hae Min Lee a voice."

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