On June 30, 2016, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granted relief in Adnan Syed v. State. You can read the Court’s 59 page Memorandum Opinion and Order at the end of this post. I’m going to attempt to bottom line the key points in the Court’s opinion.
There were three issues before the Court:
- Did Mr. Syed’s trial counsel render ineffective assistance in failing to contact Asia McClain as a potential alibi witness?
- Did the State fail to turn over documents to defense as required by law?
- Did trial counsel render ineffective assistance in failing to challenge the reliability of the State’s cell tower location evidence
The Court denied relief on the first two claims, but granted relief as to the third claim. You only need to win on one issue to win a new trial. Mr. Syed did not need to will on all of the claims in order to ultimately prevail.
Did Mr. Syed’s trial counsel render ineffective assistance in failing to contact Asia McClain as a potential alibi witness?
On the first claim, the Court found that trial counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, but the mistake did not cause prejudice to Mr. Syed. The test for ineffective counsel is two part. A Petitioner must demonstrate both deficient performance AND prejudice in order to win a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. You can read more about the two part test under Strickland here and here. The Court denied relief on this claim because it found that the timeline of Ms. Lee’s death was not critical to the State’ s conviction. According to the Court:
“Together, Wilds’ testimony and Petitioner’s cell phone records created the nexus between Petitioner and the murder. Even if trial counsel had contacted McClain to investigate the potential alibi, McClain’s testimony would not have been able to sever this crucial link. “
(06.30.2016 Memorandum Opinion II at 26).
In plain speak, the post conviction court found that trial counsel screwed up in failing to investigate Mr. Syed’s alibi witness. Nonetheless, the Court found that the error was not so significant in the context of the other evidence at trial, specifically Jay’s testimony coupled with the cell phone location evidence, to have changed the outcome of the trial. In other words, the Court found that Mr. Syed would still have been found guilty, even if Ms. McClaine testified. In framing its conclusion in this way, the Court foreshadows its conclusion regarding the third claim.
Did the State fail to turn over documents to defense as required by law?
As to the second claim, the Court found that Mr. Syed waived this claim for not raising it earlier and that the State did not suppress the evidence at issue. The evidence at issue was 1.) “a fax cover sheet that contained a set of instructions on how to read a ‘subscriber activity report’ and a disclaimer about the unreliability of using incoming calls for location” and 2.) the State’s presenting “the cell phone records without the subject page identifying the cell phone records as an excerpt of a subscriber activity report.” (Memorandum Opinion II at 30). An issue is considered waived if you had the opportunity to raise it at a previous proceeding and failed to do so. The court found that although the State presented the cell phone data in court without the fax cover sheet and without identifying the records as a “subscriber activity report,” these documents were found in trial counsel’s files. Because the State disclosed this information to trial counsel before the trial, trial counsel had the opportunity and means to challenge the cell phone data at trial and failed to do so. In addition, the post conviction court found that the State did not suppress the evidence because it provided the information to trial counsel as was required. The post conviction court emphasized that trial counsel has an obligation to investigate and make use of whatever opportunities were at its disposal to challenge the State’s case, especially on key points such as the cell phone location evidence. Imagine you are fighting Superman. Before the fight, Superman provided you with a piece of kryptonite and a piece of paper explaining the significance of kryptonite. If you fail to make use of that information and tool during the ensuing battle, that failure is your fault. (For the sake of the explanation, this analogy does not address the troubling prospect of knowingly presenting evidence in a misleading way.)
Did trial counsel render ineffective assistance in failing to challenge the reliability of the State’s cell tower location evidence?
This is the claim that won Mr. Syed a new trial. The Court described the cell phone location evidence and the testimony of the State’s cell phone expert as the “foundation” of the State’s case. (Memorandum Opinion II at 50). The Court found that trial counsel had the means to challenge this evidence because the relevant documents had been properly disclosed by the State and were found in trial counsel’s files. The Court found that counsel’s failure to cross examine the State’s expert on the unreliability of incoming calls to pinpoint a caller’s location fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. A reasonable attorney in trial counsel’s position would have thoroughly examined all documents turned over by the State and used this information to challenge the State’s assertion that the incoming calls placed Mr. Syed at the burial site at the purported time. Likewise, a reasonable attorney could then argue Jay’s timeline was without corroboration. Because the Court found that the cell phone location evidence was the foundation of the State’s case, trial counsel’s lapse was critical. Ultimately the Court concluded that Mr. Syed demonstrated that there is a substantial possibility that the jury would not have convicted Mr. Syed if trial counsel had not made this critical mistake. Thus, the post conviction court found Mr. Syed met both parts of the test for ineffective assistance, 1.) a serious mistake, AND 2.) the mistake likely altered the outcome of the trial.
So what happens next? I’ll lay out the possibilities in my next post.