Close X

Blog

Ineffective Assistance in the Adnan Syed Case

Posted by Benjamin Goldberg | Feb 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

Like millions of others, I was obsessed with the Adnan Syed case made famous by the "Serial" podcast. This case was back in the news recently, as Syed got back into court to argue that he is entitled to a new trial based on his trial lawyer's ineffectiveness.  

As an appellate lawyer, ineffective assistance of trial counsel is something that I frequently research and write about. It is one of the most difficult issues to successfully appeal on, and the Syed case is a good illustration of why that is.  

As anyone who is familiar with this case knows, Syed had an alibi witness named Asia McClain, who apparently saw and spoke to Syed in the school library at the same time that he supposedly was murdering his ex-girlfriend. Syed told his trial lawyer about Asia.

Most trial lawyers, armed with this information, would have sent their investigator to interview Asia as soon as possible. Obviously, an alibi of this nature could have totally called into question the State's theory of the case. Depending on how credible Asia was, her testimony could have been the most important piece of evidence presented in Syed's defense. Inexplicably, Syed's trial lawyer never contacted Asia to gauge the value of her testimony. This failure is the reason why Syed should be granted a new trial.   

Generally, to successfully prove a trial lawyer's ineffectiveness, the appealing defendant must establish (a) that his attorney performed deficiently, that is that the lawyer's performance fell below the standard of what a reasonable trial lawyer would have done under the circumstances, and (b) that the lawyer's deficiency prejudiced, or harmed him. Prejudice requires a showing of a reasonable probability that, had the trial lawyer done or not done whatever they are accused of, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.

The first prong, deficiency, is very difficult to overcome. At a hearing of the nature Syed just had, the trial lawyer would typically testify to his or her reason for having made the decision they made. The appellate courts will not condemn a lawyer's informed decision regarding trial strategy. As long as the lawyer testifies to having a strategic reason for their decision, the ineffective assistance claim will normally fail.

For example, in Syed's case, his trial lawyer may have interviewed Asia and determined that she would not be a good witness because she was not positive on the date or time. This would arguably be a legitimate reason not to call Asia to testify. The problem is, again, that Syed's lawyer never even interviewed Asia. Thus, how could she have had a strategic reason for not calling her as a witness when she did not even investigate the alibi? A strategic decision must be informed by a reasonable investigation. This is one reason why Syed's claim should be successful. A reasonable trial lawyer would have interviewed Asia.

The other prong, prejudice, oftentimes requires consideration of the strength of the evidence used to convict the defendant. If the evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of guilt, any error made by the trial lawyer is less likely to have harmed the defendant. In the Syed case, the evidence of guilt was hardly overwhelming. In fact, his conviction hinged primarily on the testimony of a witness whose credibility was highly questionable. For this reason, Syed should be able to establish the prejudice component of his claim.

I would guess that 95% of all ineffective assistance claims fail. It is a very high burden for an appealing defendant to meet. Syed's claim regarding the alibi witness is about as strong a claim of ineffectiveness that I have seen. The case, and the particular claim of ineffectiveness, is a reminder about how important it is to investigate every potential avenue of defense.   

About the Author

Benjamin Goldberg

Ben has known since college that he wanted to become a criminal defense attorney. At Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Ben majored in criminal justice with a focus on pre-law. This helped prepare him for law school, when he returned home to Atlanta, Georgia and attended Georgia State University. While in law school, Ben gained valuable experience during externships with the Georgia Innocence Project, the Federal Defender Program and the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.

Comments

There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

"Without a Doubt the Best"

"I would highly recommend Ben. There were not any surprises or extra costs. He was very clear on what to expect. Even more impressive was what happened before I went to court and while in court, everything happened exactly as Ben had told me it would. When I was in the court room and Ben needed to make things happen, he was so articulate I felt as though I had an entire team of lawyers."

"Truly an attorney with not just intellect but heart!"

"When Mr. Goldberg came into my life, he went against all odds, believed in my innocence, fought for my justice, and supported me as my lawyer and my friend. I personally believe that when Mr. Goldberg chose to practice law, his goal was not money nor prestige, but was only the well-being of the client. More specifically, he values the lives of the individuals he represents and provides them with the best defense to see to it that justice is served."