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'Serial' podcast defendant gets new trial for ineffective counsel

Adnan Syed, the defendant profiled in Season 1 the popular podcast "Serial," has been granted a new trial. A Maryland court of appeals has ruled that Syed received constitutionally ineffective assistance from his trial counsel 18 years ago, and that ineffective assistance probably affected the outcome of his trial.

Syed, now 28, was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment in 2000. He allegedly murdered his former girlfriend in 1999 and buried her in a shallow grave in Baltimore. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In June 2016, a retired Baltimore circuit judge ruled that Syed should have a new trial. That ruling was put on hold by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals so that the state would have time to appeal. Now that court has vacated all of Syed's convictions and granted him a new trial.

According to the court, Syed's trial counsel was deficient because she failed to interview a witness who claimed to be able to provide Syed with an alibi. The witness would have testified that she saw Syed in a library at the time prosecutors said the victim was killed.

In order for a defendant to get a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel, the defense must prove two things. First, that counsel failed to uphold a duty to their client -- in this case, a duty to perform a reasonable investigation of the case. Second, there must have been a reasonable probability that, without the counsel's failure, the defendant would have been acquitted.

At a post-conviction hearing, the state tried to assert a different time of murder than they argued at trial, so that this alibi witness would be deemed irrelevant. This is an all too common tactic by prosecutors when confronted by defense evidence that contradicts the state's trial evidence -- just change the theory of prosecution. But the court did not allow that sleight of hand trick. Instead, the court ruled this concession by the prosecutors of uncertainty as to the time of death further solidified its own conclusion that the jury was deprived of evidence that could have supplied reasonable doubt.

Therefore, the court found that "but for trial counsel's failure to investigate, there is a reasonable probability that [the] alibi testimony would have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror about Syed's involvement."

Since the ineffective assistance of counsel claim was established, the judges looked next to the various convictions. They found that all of the convictions were predicated on the murder conviction, so they all must be vacated pending a new trial.

Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are granted frequently. As one expert interviewed by PBS pointed out, however, the two-pronged standard is difficult to establish. While it's hard for the public to believe, "there have been cases where an attorney has been sleeping, drunk or in bad health during a trial and the high courts have found that this did not result in a bad outcome," she said.

The state could try to appeal this decision further. They have 30 days to do so. If not, they must either retry Syed, or try to entice him by offering a plea resolution for his release, such as an "Alford" plea. We have discussed these pleas before, which allow a defendant to maintain innocence while still accepting a finding of guilt to a lesser charge. Many observers decry such plea offers, but the United States Supreme Court has approved their use.

Ultimately, it is the defendant's decision whether to continue to place faith in a jury system that already failed him once, or to reduce the risk by accepting a plea that could mean instant freedom. It is hard to fault a defendant's choice either way.

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