written by Kurt Nachtman, partner at ENLawyers:
As a Baltimore Criminal lawyer, I first heard of the podcast Serial a few months ago. I drive regularly for work, so I listen to a ton of audio books and podcasts. I was especially intrigued by the subject matter, and the constant probing by friends and family.
What is Serial?
Serial is a podcast about the death of a Baltimore County high school senior named Hae Min Lee from 1999. She was brutally strangled to death and dumped in Leakin Park (Baltimore’s infamous body dumping ground). The podcast follows the death, investigation, trial, and eventual conviction of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend.
Before we begin, I should disclose a few things:
- I don’t know Christina Guiterrez. I started working in the State’s Attorney’s Office in 2004, the year she died. I know of her reputation from people that knew her and she was, apparently, a pit bull as described in Serial.
- I do know Assistant State’s Attorney Murphy. She was my old boss. I have tremendous respect for her and found that she was one of the most ethical and hard working prosecutors I ever met. I worked for her directly for about a year until 2011 when I left the State’s Attorney’s Office and went into private practice.
- I also know Bill Ritz, both by reputation and by his work product. He was a tireless and diligent homicide detective.
- I’m skeptical of everything. Clients, witnesses, cops, prosecutors. For the last decade, I have become a constant skeptic of everyone and everything. I feel like it comes with the territory of being a former prosecutor in Baltimore City and now a Baltimore Criminal Lawyer.
Did Ms. Guiterrez throw the trial to get money for an appeal?
This was the premise of the very first few minutes of the first episode of Serial. It was totally laughable. First, it would be incredibly difficult to “throw” a trial without getting caught. There are far, far too many variables to control. Second, the prospect that a “pit bull” of a defense attorney (As Christina Guiterrez is characterized) would throw a trial is absurd. People become attorneys because they like to win, all the time. Yes it’s about justice, but make no mistake, attorneys want to WIN for their client. Now, that being said, did she throw the case is a different issue than did she commit attorney error to the point where Adnan Syed deserves a new trial?
Post conviction relief: Adnan’s last real hope
After someone is convicted at trial, there is an appeal process. First the person has the opportunity for a direct appeal. The direct appeal consists of challenging legal issues that came up during the course of trial and where errors were made, either by the State or the court. After those appeals are exhausted, the defendant has an opportunity for what is called Post Conviction relief. Post conviction cases consist of several different avenues for challenging the underlying case:
- new evidence
- mistakes by the trial court
- mistakes by your trial lawyer
Mistakes by your trial lawyer is by far the largest and most successful area in Post Conviction challenges. However, Post Conviction cases are rarely successful. They are complex and require revisiting cases many years after the fact, and they’re expensive to litigate. In Adnan Syed’s case, he made several claims for post conviction relief, the most prominently featured of which, is that there was an alibi witness that was not called as a witness at trial and in fact was not even investigated by his lawyer, Ms. Christina Guiterrez. While I don’t know if his lawyer did or did not contact the alibi witness, I do know, based upon what was presented in the podcast of what went wrong and why Adnan did not win his Post Conviction hearing, was based upon this issue.
Got witnesses that were not investigated?
As a post conviction attorney, your job is not just to pursue claims that involve errors committed by the trial attorney, but to prove that the error was so erroneous as to have deprived the defendant of a fair trial. And you need to PROVE it! Here is what Mr. Syed would have needed:
- the witness to testify at the post conviction hearing
- to prove that the testimony would have been critical at trial
- and that the trial attorney didn’t even investigate the potential alibi.
What was clear from the post conviction proceedings is that the Serial Podcast producers were the first people to reach out to the alibi witness, who was residing out of state and had very clearly moved on with her life (in fact had forgotten all about it). In fact, the State’s Attorney apparently testified that the witness felt coerced by Mr. Syed’s family to invent the alibi story. This key piece of testimony could have been why the alibi witness was not called in the first place.
The bottom line
At ENLawyers, when we interview a client and investigate a case, we are immediately looking for witnesses and evidence that will help exonerate our client. We act quickly to interview witnesses and preserve evidence, because as Serial listeners now understand, witnesses disappear, or recant, changing their statements, or their perception of the event. If acting quickly, statements can be taken and preserved for trial, such that we minimize the chance of having to rely on the appearance of a hesitant witness.
Coming up on Part Two: Adnan’s legal recourse and post-conviction relief…