(Reuters) - A Baltimore man whose murder conviction was questioned by the popular 2014 “Serial” podcast will be retried, a Maryland appeals court ordered on Thursday, after concluding that his lawyer had failed to defend him effectively.
The case involving a 1999 murder seized public attention in 2014 when Chicago public radio station WBEZ’s “Serial” podcast, which has been downloaded millions of times, pointed out possible holes in prosecutors’ case against Adnan Syed, now 37.
The state Court of Special Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision last year to overturn Syed’s conviction in the strangling of his ex-girlfriend while he was in high school, and sent his case back to a Baltimore court for retrial. He remains behind bars and is serving a life sentence.
In a 105-page ruling, the appeals court agreed with a lower court that Syed’s right to effective legal representation “was violated by trial counsel’s failure to investigate a potential alibi witness.” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh had appealed the lower court’s 2016 decision.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch had ruled that Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, should have cross-examined a witness about the reliability of cellphone tower evidence.
But the appeals court said Gutierrez instead should have tried to investigate a potential alibi witness, Asia McClain Chapman.
Chapman testified in 2016 that she and Syed were together at the time when prosecutors said the murder occurred and no one contacted her to provide an alibi at Syed’s trial.
Gutierrez, who died in 2004, agreed to be disbarred by the state’s highest court in 2001 rather than face complaints filed with the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission. She said at the time that she could no longer practice because of ill health.
The attorney general’s office could appeal Thursday’s decision to the state’s highest tribunal, the Court of Appeals.
“We are currently reviewing today’s decision to determine next steps,” Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Frosh, said in an email.
Syed’s attorney, Justin Brown, said he was confident his client would be found not guilty in a retrial.
“We hope that they (the state) will come to the conclusion that this has gone on long enough” and not appeal the ruling, Brown told a press conference.
Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; editing by James Dalgleish, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis