A Maryland murder case that garnered nationwide attention after a hit podcast raised questions about its subject’s guilt landed on Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Adnan Syed’s petition takes aim at a more discrete legal issue than the hefty question of whether he’s innocent in the 1999 killing of Baltimore County high school student Hae Min Lee. The pair had dated.
Syed argues that a state appeals court ruling against him undermines the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, due to the way that the court evaluated his claim that his trial lawyer’s failure to investigate his alibi warrants a new trial.
The 2014 podcast “Serial” took an in-depth look at the case and, through that context, some saw the case against Syed crumble. The podcast highlighted things like the alibi and state witness inconsistencies.
“Syed’s case has inspired podcasts, a documentary, and countless news articles,” he notes in his petition.
He’d already won a new trial on appeal in Maryland state court, but that decision was overturned earlier this year by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Syed could spend the rest of his life in prison if the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene. Four of the nine justices need to agree to hear an appeal.
It could be the next big case the justices take on following widespread media attention sparked by an award-winning podcast.
That’s what happened with death row inmate Curtis Flowers, who won his appeal by a lopsided majority in June, over dissent that accused the majority of taking the case in the first place because of media attention.
His saga gained notoriety from the award-winning APM Reports podcast “In the Dark,” which took an in-depth look at the case. Flowers was tried six times for the same crime by the same local prosecutor in Mississippi, and won his high-court case on race discrimination in jury selection.
Syed says his appeal to the justices “is about a straightforward legal issue,” surrounding the proper standard for evaluating ineffective assistance claims under the Supreme Court’s landmark 1984 decision Strickland v. Washington.
He says that his trial lawyer’s failure to investigate his alibi fell below that standard, and that the Maryland Court of Appeals incorrectly applied Strickland this year in ruling against him.
When evaluating ineffective assistance claims like Syed’s, the majority of courts around the country “compare the case that the State actually presented at trial with the case that the defendant would have presented if his attorney had been effective,” he says in the petition.
But the Maryland appeals court took a different approach, Syed says. That court “hypothesized a different case, one where the jury rejected the State’s theory of the time of Lee’s death in favor of some unpresented and unknown alternative timeline,” he says, going on to conclude that the justices should mandate that courts across the country adopt the majority approach. He would have won his appeal under that approach, he says.
Next, the state will have the opportunity to file a brief arguing why the justices shouldn’t take Syed’s appeal. The justices could decide in the coming months whether to do so, but there’s no set deadline for such a decision.
The case is Syed v. Maryland, U.S., cert. petition filed 8/19/19.