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The NPR podcast “Serial” has received a great deal of publicity, as it explored the criminal case brought by the State of Maryland against Adnan Syed.
Maryland’s highest court last week, in a divided decision, ultimately held that Syed would not be entitled to a new trial because of ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. How the case got to this point shows the twists and turns that criminal cases can take.
Syed was convicted in 2000 of crimes including first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping. His conviction was initially upheld on appeal by Maryland’s intermediate appellate Court. In 2010, he filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel. Under the Sixth Amendment, the right to an attorney in a criminal proceeding includes that a defendant receives effective assistance of that attorney.
In filing that petition, the Defendant challenged the failure of his trial attorney to interview or call at trial a potential alibi witness, but significantly did not raise whether the trial attorney should have effectively challenged the admission of cell phone tower evidence against him.
As the majority opinion from the Court of Appeals holds, the test for effective assistance of counsel requires the defendant to show: 1) that the attorney’s performance was deficient, and 2) that the defendant suffered prejudice in his case because of the lawyer’s deficient performance.
Whether counsel’s performance was deficient is judged by objection prevailing professional norms. To show prejudice, the defendant must show either that there was a reasonable probability that for counsel’s poor performance, the result of the case would have been different, or that the result was fundamentally unfair or unreliable.
The court that heard the post-conviction proceeding, the intermediate appellate Court and the Court of Appeal’s judges (with the exception of one concurring judge who held the issue need not be reached) concluded that the trial attorney’s performance was deficient because she never interviewed an alibi witness identified by her client for his alleged activities during the afternoon when the victim was killed. However, the majority of the Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower courts that there was a showing of prejudice sufficient to require a new trial for the defendant.
The judges also held that Syed waived the issue about the cell tower evidence by not raising it in his initial petition, so that the Maryland proceeding as it stands will not result in a new trial.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.