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Attorneys argue Adnan Syed alibi in Court of Appeals

Posted at 2:31 PM, Nov 29, 2018

How hard a defense attorney pursued a potential alibi for Adnan Syed in the murder trial where he was convicted of killing Hai Min Lee was the key point of debate in oral arguments at the Maryland Court of Appeals Wednesday morning.

Syed was convicted in 1999 of killing Lee, a girl he had dated in high school, and discarding her body in Leakin Park in West Baltimore. The case gained widespread notoriety with the runaway success of the podcast Serial. The podcast explored potential holes in the case, but did not provide exculpatory evidence.

Asia McClain, a woman who said she knew Syed in high school, came forward after the trial to say she could have provided an alibi that Syed was in a library at the time police believe Lee was murdered. Syed said his attorney in the trial, M. Cristina Gutierrez, did not explore the potential alibi.

After numerous legal challenges, Syed's conviction was vacated in 2016 and a new trial was ordered. The state appealed that decision but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling. The state pushed back again and in July the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed to hear the arguments about reinstating the conviction.

In court Thursday, Thiru Vignarajah, the original prosecutor in the case, and one of Syed's new attorneys, Cate Stetson, and made arguments over whether the failure to pursue the McClain alibi violated Syed's sixth amendment right to effective counsel.

Stetson pressed the argument that the now deceased Gutierrez failed to provide effective counsel by not interviewing McClain and two others who said they could place Syed in the library at the time of Lee's death.

"You can't make a reasoned decision about what trial strategy you're going to engaging in without calling an alibi witness and asking whether that testimony is going to help your case," Stetson said in arguments.

Vignarajah said that the potential alibi conflicted with statements Syed made to police about his whereabouts, and that Gutierrez had letters from potential witnesses that intimating they may be willing to lie for Syed. 

“There were specific sentences that said, 'If you are innocent, I can help account for your unaccounted, unwitnessed time.'" Vignarajah told the court. "'Maybe if I contact your first, you will get a head start over the police.'"

Vignarajah also brought up larger worries about what a favorable ruling for Syed would mean for future cases and defense attorneys. If a conviction could be voided because an attorney did not vet every potential alibi, then it puts an undue burden on counsel. He also argued that the alibi had fatal flaws that likely led Gutierrez to not pursue it as exonerating.

Gutierrez's death further complicates the appeals process since she cannot defend or explain her decision making in person. 

"The reasons that [Gutierrez] might have offered don't matter," Stetson argued. "This was objectively unreasonable."

The Court of Appeals is expected to make a ruling in the coming months.

Friends and family of Syed left the courthouse feeling hopeful that these hearings could correct what they see as an injustice that has him currently serving a life sentence. 

“A few years ago, Adnan thought that he has to come to terms with maybe dying in prison and now he feels like there's a chance he's going to come home,” said Rabia Chadry. “He feels good. We all feel good. I think he'll be home in the next year.”