The news broke Thursday afternoon in a tweet from Justin Brown. In all-caps, the Baltimore lawyer announced that Adnan Syed would be getting a new trial.
While the decision mostly comes as welcome news to the still-young defendant who has spent close to half of his life in prison for the murder of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee, it was also greeted with enthusiasm by the millions of people who listened to the game-changing first season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast.
Season one of the intensely popular show, produced by This American Life, ended on a question mark. Syed, who has consistently maintained his innocence in the brutal murder, remained in prison. Major doubt was cast on the outcome of the original trial and conviction, but many listeners still were unsure of what exactly happened on the night of January 13, 1999, and wondered if the “real killer” might still be out there somewhere.
The decision to grant a retrial came down on Thursday from Judge Martin Welch, who declared that Syed’s original defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, "rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state's expert regarding the reliability of cell tower location evidence."
Rabia Chaudry, a family-friend of Syed’s who advocated on his behalf both as part of the Serial podcast and in the months since it first aired in late 2014, also celebrated the news on Twitter, thanking the judge, God and everyone who worked to make the retrial a reality.
As part of the decision to grant Syed a retrial, his murder conviction has also been vacated, leading some to wonder if he will be released from prison pending the new trial. However, since he is back to being considered “innocent until proven guilty,” he will likely be sent to a pretrial jail detention center, leaving behind, for now at least, the Maryland prison where he is currently serving a life sentence.
Big questions for fans of Serial are not only what Syed’s chances of winning his new trial are but whether Koenig and her team plan to cover it. The host reluctantly returned to the case back in February of this year during the three-day hearing that ultimately led to today’s decision.
As Koenig explained to listeners at the time, this was seen as a “last-ditch effort” by Syed’s lawyers, with his first petition for retrial coming more than five years earlier, before she had even become interested in covering the case. While much of the “drama” in that hearing surrounded the testimony of potential alibi witness Asia McClain, who claimed to have seen Syed in the library after school at exactly the time he was supposed to be killing Hae Min Lee, the decision to grant the retrial appears to have hinged on the much thornier “cell tower issue,” as Brown put it to The New York Times.
During the original trial, the prosecution used cell phone records to place Syed at the scene of the crime. But at February’s hearing the AT&T engineer who first testified that the cell records linked Syed to the murder admitted that he had not seen a disclaimer on a fax cover sheet that read, “Any incoming calls will NOT be reliable information for location.”
As Judge Welch wrote in his opinion, it was the combination of the cell tower data and the testimony of Syed’s friend Jay Wilds that led directly to Syed’s conviction. Because he did not consider McClain’s alibi to be a deciding factor in the case, that means it is unlikely to play a big role in the retrial.
Welch also explicitly rejected the notion that public opinion, driven by Serial, had any effect on his decision. "This case represents a unique juncture between the criminal justice system and a phenomenally strong public interest caused by modern media," he wrote. "Regardless of the public interest surrounding this case, the court used its best efforts to address the merits of [Syed's] petition for post-conviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court, unfettered by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion."
During a press conference at his office following the release of the decision, Brown told reporters, “The conviction has been vacated. It’s been erased. It’s gone.” He added, "I’m feeling pretty confident right now. This was the biggest hurdle. It’s really hard to get a new trial."
With a key piece of evidence thrown into question and the testimony of Jay Wilds, problematic at best and flat-out unreliable at worst, Syed just got his best chance yet of exoneration.
Reached for comment on Friday, Serial’s production manager Emily Condon gave The Daily Beast some insight via email as to how the team is feeling about this “incredible turn of events,” in her words.
“We spent last night and today reading and talking through Judge Welsh’s opinion,” she wrote, “to try to understand exactly what it means.”
Condon did not indicate if or when Serial plans to continue covering the case, but if February’s hearing was enough to suck Koenig and her team back into the story that made their podcast the most downloaded of all time, you had better believe a new trial will do the same.