Friday, May 13, 2016

Lessons from the Popular Podcast "Serial"

My wife and I finished the first season of the podcast "Serial." The popularity of the podcast does not surprise me. Not only was the presentation well done, but the integrity of the investigation was sound. For those who may not know what I am referring to, "Serial" is an expose into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a charming, brilliant high school student.

A jury in Baltimore convicted Adnan Syed, the former boyfriend, for the crime. "Serial" relied upon conversations with Adnan Syed to assist in its own investigation. Adnan was good-looking, friendly, and endearing to his peers so the conviction came as quite a shock to many people in the community. His conviction is currently being challenged via a petition for writ of habeas corpus.

The case, tragic in a myriad of ways, is a good example of what post-conviction relief looks like. First, let us discuss the evidence against Adnan. Then, we will discuss some potentially exculpatory evidence that is being used in his habeas case. Lastly, some final thoughts will be given.

The prosecution's case against Adnan was built upon the testimony of Adnan's friend Jay (not real name). Jay gave testimony that Adnan had planned Hai Min Lee's murder, told Jay about it, and then asked Jay to assist in the burying of the body after the murder. This testimony in conjunction with cell phone tower evidence (used much more today than at the time of the trial) was the crux of the prosecution's case. Jay's inconsistencies were many, but the cell phone tower evidence corroborated his story that he was in Leakin Park (a park near Baltimore) with Adnan on the night that Hae Min Lee went missing. Hae Min Lee's body was found in Leakin Park a few months later.

Despite Adnan hiring one of the most renowned criminal defense attorneys in Baltimore, Cristina Gutierrez, he lost at trial. One of the main arguments used Adnan's habeas petition was that Cristina Gutierrez provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Adnan claimed that Cristina Gutierrez failed to contact an alibi witness who wrote a letter to Ms. Gutierrez stating that she had seen Adnan Syed in the library at the time the prosecution believed Hae Min Lee was murdered (he is also claiming that Cristina Gutierrez failed to seek a plea deal with the prosecution).

A judge has to decide whether Ms. Gutierrez's failures resulted in fundamental unfairness for Adnan, and whether a new trial is warranted.

Most habeas petitions include an argument of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC). Given the Supreme Court's recent expansion of the law with respect to plea bargaining, it is a good argument to make. Attorneys are not perfect, and the law should not expect them to be. As such, relief should be given to those defendants who were not given a fair trial because their attorneys were inadequate.

Adnan Syed's case also involves DNA evidence. An innocent project clinic is moving to test evidence collected -- where Hae Min Lee's body was found -- that has never been tested before. It is the hope of Adnan that the DNA evidence will exculpate him for the murder of Hae Min Lee.

Like IAC, using DNA evidence to prove factual innocence is common in post-conviction relief. California has even taken steps to lower the standard at which evidence can be tested. Other states have implemented better DNA evidence protocol with respect to police investigations, i.e. they must keep the evidence a certain period of time, ensure its authenticity, etc.

No matter what, seeking post-conviction relief via a writ of habeas corpus is an uphill battle. Most, and I emphasize most, cases are dismissed with prejudice. The burden shifts immediately after a defendant is convicted, meaning that the People do not have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. It is up to the petitioner to prove his innocence. It is very difficult to do; just ask Adnan Syed.