Serial: Understanding the Maryland Appellate Court Decision

Today the news outlets are all abuzz with news that Adnan Syed, the main character/suspect/protagonist/interviewee of the wildly popular podcast Serial had won his appeal. Or got one step closer to winning his appeal. Or something. Or maybe we’re not exactly sure what happened, because all the news outlets saw an appellate decision containing the words “Adnan Syed” and “remand” and “supplement the record” and rushed to judgment.

So let’s take a look at the Maryland Appellate Court’s actual decision, available here.

The Appellate Court takes pains to remind us all how we got here:

  1. Adnan Syed was convicted.
  2. He moved for a new trial, which was denied.
  3. He appealed his conviction, which was denied.
  4. He then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari regarding the denial of his appeal, which was denied.
  5. He filed a motion for post-conviction relief (not a direct appeal, but a collateral attack on his conviction), which was denied.
  6. He applied for leave (asked for permission) to appeal the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief, based on his attorney not contacting Asia McClain (his alibi witness), and for failing to pursue a plea offer.
  7. The Appellate Court then directed the prosecution to respond to his application for leave.
  8. Adnan Syed filed a supplement to his application for leave, where he requested that the Circuit Court conduct an evidentiary hearing on what Asia McClain would testify to had she been called as a witness.
  9. The Appellate Court granted Adnan Syed’s application for leave to appeal, and the parties filed their appellate briefs.

Today the Appellate Court issued a stay of the appeal (hit the pause button) and let Syed file a request with the Circuit Court to hear Asia McClain’s testimony in order to supplement the record.

This does not mean:

  1. Adnan Syed won his appeal.
  2. Asia McClain is going to testify.
  3. The Circuit Court has to let Adnan Syed put on Asia McClain’s testimony.

All it actually means is that the Appellate Court told the Circuit Court that it now has the discretion to “conduct any further proceedings it deems appropriate.” If that includes letting Adnan Syed’s attorneys proffer Asia McClain’s testimony, so be it.


A bit of explanation may be in order: When an appellate court takes on a case it can only look at the materials in the record. The record is all the evidence and testimony that is put in front of the judge or jury at trial, as well as a transcript of everything that’s said to the judge by the lawyers in argument. Let’s say there’s a photograph that one party wanted to introduce into evidence, but didn’t bring it to the courthouse on the day of trial. On appeal the appellate court will act like it doesn’t know that photograph existed.

Cases like Adnan Syed’s are a little different. The point of his appeal is that there’s some potential evidence – Asia McClain’s testimony – that was never investigated by his attorney or offered at trial, and because of that he got convicted. In order to consider the merits of his appeal, the appellate court will need to take a look at what Asia McClain would have actually said had she been called to testify.

Keep in mind, too, that cases like this are very hard to win for the convicted party. This is not a direct appeal of his conviction. The logic of this appeal works like this:

  1. Asia McClain was a potential alibi witness who was never contacted by Adnan’s attorneys.
  2. If the attorneys had contacted her, they would have realized she was an alibi witness.
  3. Because she was a potential alibi witness, the attorneys would have called her to testify at trial.
  4. If she testified at trial, she would have told the jury she remembered seeing Adnan around the time the murder took place.
  5. If the jury heard that testimony, they would have not found Adnan beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.

Right now we have no idea what Asia McClain would have testified to, because she was never contacted, much less called to testify. What the Appellate Court did today allows the Circuit Court to potentially take her testimony and make it part of the record for appeal. But keep in mind that the Circuit Court doesn’t have to take her testimony – it has the discretion to just say no.

So don’t get too excited just yet, Serial fans. This case has a long way to go yet.