Why Adnan Syed Is Getting A New Trial

On Thursday, Judge Martin Welch issued his highly anticipated ruling in the case of Adnan Syed, the subject of the remarkably popular Serial podcast. Judge Welch granted Syed's request for a new trial. In doing so, he accepted some of Syed's arguments and rejected others. Here's a summary of his ruling.

The legal standard

Syed's two primary grounds for his new trial request were based on the alleged ineffectiveness of his trial counsel, Christina Gutierrez. (There was another ground, based on the prosecution's alleged failure to turn over certain evidence. That ground was rejected, partly based on technical procedural rules, and won't be discussed further here.)

In an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant is basically saying that his lawyer did such a poor job that for constitutional purposes, he didn't have the "assistance of counsel" that the Sixth Amendment guarantees him. A defendant relying on this theory has to clear two formidable hurdles.

First, he has to establish that his lawyer's performance was so deficient that it fell below the constitutional minimum standard. This is more than just proving that the lawyer made some mistakes or could have done better. The law recognizes that there's a wide range of quality within the legal profession, and the Constitution doesn't require a particularly skilled lawyer; just one who can keep his head above the constitutional line of basic competence. Courts are very reluctant to second-guess lawyers' decisions after the fact, particularly where those decisions can plausibly be defended as legitimate tactical choices. Basically, if the state--which, in a post-conviction case like Syed's, finds itself in the counterintuitive position of extolling the performance of the original defense lawyer--can point to any possible strategic reason a competent lawyer could have had for making a particular decision, the claim will fail.

And even if the defendant succeeds on that point, it's not over. The reviewing court will only grant a new trial if the defendant was "prejudiced" (harmed) by his lawyer's ineffectiveness--that is, if there's a "reasonable probability" that, had his lawyer performed competently, the result would have been different. In other words, if the evidence was so overwhelming that the lawyer's errors didn't actually affect the outcome, the claim fails.

Syed's claims

Syed made two ineffective-assistance claims. The first, and the one that many observers have focused on, was based on Gutierrez's failure to contact a potential alibi witness--Asia McClain, who was apparently prepared to testify that she'd seen Syed somewhere other than the crime scene at the time of the murder. Judge Welch rejected this claim, but it's worth looking at exactly why he did so.

Judge Welch agreed that Gutierrez was deficient for failing to follow up with McClain and at least interview her. This ruling was consistent with what other courts have done in similar cases. As I've written before, had Gutierrez interviewed McClain and then decided not to call her as a trial witness, this almost certainly would have been viewed as a legitimate strategic decision that a post-conviction court wouldn't be willing to second-guess. But courts have consistently held that for a decision to be a genuine strategic one, it has to be made on an informed basis, and a lawyer can't make a constitutionally sufficient decision on something as critical as the quality of a potential alibi witness without at least looking into the relevant facts. The evidence was that Gutierrez failed to do so, and Judge Welch accordingly concluded that her work fell below constitutional standards.

This claim, however, failed at the second step--the "prejudice" inquiry. Judge Welch did not believe there was a reasonable probability that the result would have been different had Gutierrez followed up with McClain. Notably, this wasn't because he considered the evidence as a whole to be overwhelmingly against Syed. Instead, he concluded that the one part of the prosecution's case that McClain could have undermined--the alleged time of the murder--was a weak point in the case anyway; in his words, it was not the "crux" of the case.

That "crux," according to Judge Welch, was the prosecution's contention that Syed had buried the victim's body in a particular park several hours after the murder. This contention was supported by the testimony of Jay Wilds--a controversial "star witness" who claimed that he had helped Syed with this burial--and by alleged cell tower location evidence. The latter evidence, provided largely through expert witness Abraham Waranowitz, supposedly corroborated Wilds's testimony by establishing that Syed's phone was (or could have been) in the vicinity of the park at the time the two were allegedly burying the body.

This latter evidence turned out to have been highly questionable, and it was Gutierrez's failure to challenge it that led to Judge Welch's decision to grant Syed a new trial. Waranowitz claimed at the trial to be able to place Syed's phone based on incoming calls to that phone. A document produced with the records, however, stated that "incoming calls will NOT be reliable information for location." (Waranowitz has since testified that he was unaware of that document and would have proceeded differently if he'd known about it; I wrote about that topic here.)

Judge Welch concluded that Gutierrez had access to that document, and that she should have known about it and used it to undermine Waranowitz's trial testimony. Her failure to do so was constitutionally ineffective, and this time there was prejudice too--with this being the "crux" of the prosecution's case, he decided there was a reasonable probability that had she performed her duties adequately the result would have been different.

And so, after 16 years, several rounds of court proceedings, and a podcast that captured the nation's attention, Adnan Syed has been granted a new trial. As in all serious criminal cases, we can all hope that the evidence will be presented, litigated, and considered fairly, and that the process will be one that gives us confidence in whatever result ensues.