The Adnan Syed Case — New Trial Granted Based on Challenge to Cell Tower Data
The Volkov Law Group would like to applaud the efforts of its own Susan Simpson, as well as the rest of the Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed team, for uncovering critical facts that led a Maryland Judge to grant Adnan Syed a new trial yesterday.
Adnan Syed, whose story inspired the now-famous podcast Serial (and subsequently the Undisclosed podcast), was convicted of the 1999 murder, robbery, and kidnapping of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee when he was 17 years old. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Mr. Syed has consistently maintained his innocence and will now have the opportunity for a new trial 16 years later, this time armed with a team of well-informed, diligent, and dedicated attorneys.
Mr. Syed’s high school classmate, Asia McClain, had long ago claimed that she saw Mr. Syed in the school library during the small window of time that the prosecution later insisted Hae Min Lee was murdered. However, Mr. Syed’s trial attorney failed to investigate Asia McClain’s assertion and never called her to the stand as an alibi witness.
Asia McClain did not know how significant her testimony would have been to the trial until Serial, the most-downloaded podcast to date, provided her with more context. Although the trial attorney’s failure to contact a potential alibi witness would not end up constituting ineffective assistance of counsel, a challenging bar to overcome, it would be enough to get them in the door for post-conviction relief.
What would ultimately be enough was the reliability and untested presentation of cell tower data. The prosecution based much of its theory of the case on cellular tower evidence, specifically two incoming phone calls on the night of Hae Min Lee’s disappearance, to place Mr. Syed at the site where she was buried. However, the cellular carrier itself explicitly warned the prosecution in its fax cover letter that only outgoing call data was reliable for location status.
For excellent informational posts related this subject, see Susan’s blogs here, here, and here. Susan discovered that Mr. Syed’s cellphone records had been produced by the phone company with a disclaimer noting that incoming calls, such as the incoming calls the prosecution alleged to the jury connected him to Leakin Park, “will NOT be considered reliable information for location,” and, crucially, that the State’s own cellphone expert had not been informed of the phone company’s warning.
The Honorable Martin P. Welch, of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, vacated Mr. Syed’s convictions based on trial counsel’s ineffective assistance for the failure to cross-examine the prosecution’s cell tower expert about the reliability of call tower location evidence.
Thanks to the diligent efforts of Baltimore-based attorney Justin Brown, the Undisclosed team, and the makers of Serial, Mr. Syed will get his day in court, but this time with counsel that cares.
The Undisclosed crew has continued their investigation of other possible wrongful convictions since Mr. Syed’s case. Check out more about Undisclosed’s work on other cases here.
Congratulations again to Susan Simpson (and her investigative team) from The Volkov Law Group for their tireless advocacy and pursuit of justice. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.