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This post is part of our “Maryland v. Syed Evidence Guide Series" based on a webinar prepared by Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, authors of the Undisclosed podcast. You can download the full guide at the end of the post.
Of the 10 evidentiary missteps in the “Serial” case outlined by Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, the first involves the curious stipulation to admission of the diary of the victim, Hae Min Lee. This presented one of the most dangerous situations for defense counsel, that of allowing the victim to “speak from the grave.”
“If you look at both the opening argument and the closing statement in trial, the prosecution placed great emphasis into the words that were written by Hae Min Lee, and it seems that they had a large role to play in the conviction of Adnan Syed.”
Miller points out that:
“[From] an evidentiary perspective, diaries probably should be deemed inadmissible for a number of reasons that could have been raised here by defense counsel.”
The diary was of course hearsay, and generally out-of-court statements are not admissible in order to prove the truth of the matter asserted. There is an exception however under Md. Rule 803(b)(3), which permits admission of statements about the state of mind of the declarant, if offered to prove the declarant’s present feeling or future intention.
In Syed, the prosecution was attempting to prove through Hae’s diary not only the state of mind of the victim, but also the state of mind of the defendant. As such, the evidence was inadmissible. Moreover, as to Hae, the evidence dealt with past events, not her current feelings, and it was cumulative of other evidence. Because of this there were several reasons why defense counsel could have sought to exclude the diary. Instead, counsel stipulated to its admission into evidence. This stipulation—in contrast to a motion in limine or objection at trial—also compromised appellate counsel’s efforts to raise these grounds for overturning the conviction.
As Simpson points out stipulations aren’t inadvisable per se:
“I'm not trying to discourage anyone from making stipulations at trial. They're useful, they have a point, and there's nothing more annoying than when you have opposing counsel that's going to pick fights over things that don't need to be...don't even have time wasted on them. But in this case [counsel] decided to let evidence in without objection when she could have easily kept it out, and the result was quite prejudicial to Adnan.”
It’s better to learn from the mistakes of others than one’s own. If you’re interested in learning more Evidence Law tips from the Adnan Syed case, simply click to download the Maryland v. Syed Evidence Guide.