In case you’ve been preoccupied with the presidential race, the Super Bowl, or Tom Hiddleston wearing only a towel, there’s been a post-appeal hearing for Adnan Syed to decide whether he should receive a new trial after he was convicted for the murder of Hae Min Lee.
The case, of course, was the subject of the first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, and last week, Koenig also took up the first three days of hearings on the podcast, providing some insight into the issues being argued. Unfortunately, because she is in the midst of recording Serial the Lesser, she could not attend either the fourth day or today’s final day of the hearing, where closing arguments were made.
Essentially, Adnan Syed presented two arguments on why his original trial attorney was ineffective, and therefore he should be granted a new trial. Besides providing evidence that his trial lawyer Cristina Gutierrez was suffering from ill health that prevented her from being an effective attorney, Syed argued that a better lawyer would’ve 1) presented Syed’s alibi witness, Asia McClain, and 2) she would have disputed the prosecution’s cell phone evidence based on a cover sheet — which was not admitted in the original trial — showing that the cell phone data was “unreliable.”
In laymen’s terms, the standard for being granted a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel or new evidence is that the evidence left out basically had to be “game changing”. Here, the defense argues that the jury would’ve come to a different conclusion if they’d heard Asia McClain’s alibi and if Gutierrez had called into question the cell phone evidence based on the cover sheet.
As to the cell phone data, I don’t believe it falls under the category of “game changer.” Yes, the prosecution failed to include the cover sheet, saying that records of incoming calls might be unreliable, but several witnesses for the prosecution credibly argued that the cell phone evidence was reliable and that what have might have made it unreliable basically didn’t apply to this case. Gutierrez might have been able to confuse the issue, but I don’t think it would have been determinative. In fact, the argument surrounding the cell phone records may have actually damaged Syed’s appeal, after an FBI agent accused Syed’s attorneys of manipulating cell phone data.
As to the alibi witness, that’s a much closer call. Based on what Koenig said, and the news reports I’ve read about the hearings, it seems like the prosecution did not do enough to discredit McClain’s alibi testimony. It seems, based on those accounts, that she was a credible witness and that neither she nor her testimony fell apart under cross examination. The prosecution may have cast some doubt on her ability to recollect what day she spent in the library with Adnan, but the question is: Was Gutierrez’s defense of Syed ineffective because she didn’t introduce Asia McClain as an alibi witness? Would McClain’s testimony have persuaded the jury to disregard Jay Wilds?
Maybe. I definitely think that the jury should have at least been given the opportunity to hear McClain and make up their mind. Is that a “game changer”? Possibly. Given the attention being paid to the case, and the pressure on the judge, I imagine that it would be enough to force a new trial.
It may be days or weeks before we find out, and even after that, it will be appealed, so don’t expect resolution anytime soon.
A new trial would probably also result in Adnan’s conviction being overturned, not just because of McClain’s alibi, but because Jay Wilds has proven to be a wildly unreliable witness, not only during the trial but since, having offered yet another timeline of events last year that conflicted with the first two or three timeliness he offered. A decent attorney shouldn’t have any problem ripping Jay Wild’s testimony to shreds, and thus casting more than reasonable doubt on the guilt of Adnan Syed.