Attorneys for Adnan Syed, whose conviction for murder was the subject of the first season of the Serial podcast, filed a motion with the Baltimore Circuit Court Monday, seeking bail for their client while he awaits a new trial. Syed has been in prison since February 28th, 1999, the day he was arrested on first-degree murder charges for the death of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. He was convicted in March 2000 and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
In June of this year, following a post-conviction relief hearing where his attorneys successfully argued that the State’s cell tower evidence was unreliable, Syed’s conviction was overturned and a new trial was granted. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office has sought to appeal that ruling, which the Court of Special Appeals (COSA) is currently considering. Regardless, Monday’s 27-page defence filing notes that Syed is “entitled to release under the same statutes as any newly charged defendant,” and begins with a brief refresher on how Syed was twice denied bail following his arrest.
Standing in front of a judge on March 1st, 1999, Syed’s original charging documents incorrectly listed his date of birth, “thus leading the court to mistakenly conclude that Syed was an 18-year-old adult rather than a 17-year-old juvenile” who was accused of a capital offence. His bail request was denied. At a review hearing on March 31st, 1999, Syed corrected the record and sought bail again, filling the courtroom with supporters from the local Muslim community, including those who were willing to offer their own property as bail.
Coupled with Syed’s spotless record, this level of community support should have been an asset; instead, the prosecution turned it into a liability, erroneously arguing that there was a “pattern in the United States of young Pakistani males having been jilted, having committed murder and have fled to Pakistan.” They claimed that Syed could tap the “unlimited resources” of the local Muslim community and, without any proof, stated that he had an uncle in Pakistan “who could make people disappear.” Syed’s was denied bail again.
“I think it’s good for the public to know what happened and how it all went down the first time,” Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown tells Rolling Stone. He expects that the State will contest Syed’s latest bail request, but it remains to be seen if they will use similarly misleading and “ethnically charged” arguments this time around.
As with any bail consideration, the primary issues are whether Syed is a flight risk or presents a danger to the community. The motion convincingly argues that Syed has no reason to flee prosecution when he’s already waited 17 years to prove his innocence. “With that moment within his grasp, there is no reason to think he would now abscond from justice and risk everything he has accomplished to date,” the motion reads.
Syed also has the support of his family and his community behind him, and “several are willing to pledge their real property to ensure that he will not flee and that he will abide by all terms of pretrial release.” Syed is further incentivised to abide by the court’s orders because even in the worst case scenario — being re-convicted and given the same sentence of life plus 30 years — he has accrued enough diminution credits that he would be eligible for parole in less than eight years. “It would make no sense for Syed to risk sacrificing that eligibility by failing to appear for trial,” the filing argues.
The motion also states that prior to his arrest for Lee’s murder, Syed had no history of violence. He still doesn’t — despite being in one of “the most violent places in our society, Syed has not been cited for a single violent act in 17 years in that environment.” His only significant infraction was being found in possession of a cell phone in 2009; otherwise, his record is exemplary.
“I’d love to hear a prosecutor argue why, by clear and convincing evidence, Adnan is likely to commit a violent act or do harm to someone in the community,” Brown says, adding, “with a straight face.”
Lastly, the Court must also consider “the nature and circumstances of the offence charged” and “the nature of the evidence against the defendant.” This offers the defence a rare legal opportunity to argue the weaknesses in the State’s entire case. Aside from a standard direct appeal, the post-conviction process is limited to raising specific legal issues or presenting new evidence; while the State’s evidence against Syed has largely been eviscerated in the court of public opinion, the motion offers a satisfying preview of the mockery the defence is prepared to make in the event of a retrial.
“We have multiple goals in this filing,” Brown says. “One of them is certainly to set the record straight and convince people who think he might be guilty. The State has banged their fists on the table and stated incorrect facts and said, ‘The guy is guilty’ — and some people have believed that. But their evidence is in shambles.”
The case against Syed has been weak from the beginning, relying on a grab bag of misleading circumstantial evidence, and a few cherry-picked cell tower pings used to corroborate the testimony of the State’s star witness, Jay Wilds. Even the original prosecutor, Kevin Urick, admitted in a 2014 interview with The Intercept that both Wilds’ testimony and the cell tower evidence was needed to secure a conviction. Since then, the motion notes, “these evidentiary pillars [have been] substantially compromised, if not discredited altogether.” The Circuit Court, of course, overturned Syed’s conviction on the basis that the cell tower evidence was unreliable.
As for Wilds? Well, he managed to hurt his credibility as a witness all by himself. Wilds has never told a consistent story about what occurred on January 13th, 1999, the day of Hae Min Lee’s disappearance. The “official” account — the one Wilds testified to at Syed’s 2000 trial — is that Syed told Wilds of his plan to kill Lee that morning, and then loaned him his car and cell phone, instructing him that he would call when he was ready to be picked up. The State claimed that Syed had gotten a ride with Lee after school let out at 2:15, and, according to Wilds’ testimony, killed her in the parking lot of a nearby Best Buy. The “come and get me” call, the State claimed, was made at 2:36 p.m., and according to Wilds, Syed showed him Lee’s dead body in the trunk of her car when he arrived. Wilds testified that he helped Syed bury Lee’s body in Baltimore’s Leakin Park just after 7 p.m. that night.
But this account is not the one Wilds told police in his first interview, and his second and third interviews with police were full of inconsistencies as well. Wilds’ story was still evolving when he took the stand at Syed’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial — an unfortunate turn of events for Syed, as that jury was apparently leaning in favour of acquittal. By the time Wilds testified for a second time in 2000, his story had been massaged to conveniently fit the supporting cell tower evidence, and a conviction was won.
Then, in late 2014, in an interview with The Intercept, Wilds “essentially admitted to lying under oath at trial,” Syed’s lawyers claim in the motion. In the interview, he recounted yet another tale that changed key details, like where Syed allegedly showed him Lee’s body and what time the burial occurred. He also stated that he didn’t know that Syed was planning to kill Lee, a direct contradiction of his trial testimony, and the basis of the prosecution’s charge that the murder was premeditated.
Furthermore, the motion reads, while Syed has managed to keep his nose clean over the last 17 years, Wilds’ credibility is “marred by an extensive criminal record, including disturbing allegations of violence against women.”
In 2006, Wilds was charged with second-degree assault after his then-girlfriend claimed Wilds had “beaten her with his hands.” Though the charges were later dropped, the woman’s injuries were photographed. In April 2009, the same woman alleged that Wilds had “hit me in my eyes” while he was drinking; during his arrest, Wilds allegedly assaulted a police officer, and was Tased and put in leg irons.
In late 2009, Wilds was involved in three separate domestic incidents involving another girlfriend, including allegations that he repeatedly punched the woman in the ribs; according to the police report, when the victim tried to call 911, Wilds strangled her to keep her from screaming. Reached by Syed’s defence team earlier this month, the woman “confirmed that Wilds had strangled her with both hands” and claimed that he had “physically assaulted her on multiple occasions” during their relationship.
These incidents “tell a story about the type of person the State would rely on to prove its case in a retrial,” the motion states.
While there’s no guarantee, the public interest in Syed’s case will more than likely result in a bail hearing being granted, and both sides would be able to make their case in front of a judge. Thiru Vignarajah, who has represented the State at the last two post-conviction hearings and has been the conviction’s most vigorous defender, announced his departure from the Attorney General’s Office just a few months after Syed’s conviction was overturned; it’s unclear who the case has been passed onto, or if they’re prepared to defend its merits.
For years, the State has gotten away with saying that Syed was convicted on “overwhelming evidence,” knowing full well that much of it had been discredited outside the courtroom and wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny today. The substantive arguments laid out in the defence’s motion put prosecutors in the position of now having to defend the credibility of their case, which is exactly what they have been fighting like hell to avoid.