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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.
Had Thomas Edison been a lawyer he might have said effective trial practice consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent preparation. This is nowhere truer than in handling witnesses at trial. The Adnan Syed case presents glaring instances where an apparent failure to understand background or recall the record resulted in the omission of strong alibi evidence.
“[I]t's highly important when you are interrogating a witness, especially a fundamental witness who's important to the theory of the case at trial, that if they give testimony that's inconsistent with their prior statements, that you're ready to either refresh their recollection and/or impeach the testimony that they're giving at trial if it hurts your case.”
— Colin Miller
Debbie, a friend of both Hae and Adnan, gave a statement to police placing Adnan at the guidance counselor’s office at 2:45 pm on the day Hae disappeared. At the first trial she testified to the same effect. A letter Adnan received from the guidance counselor dated that day partially corroborated this testimony. The testimony contradicted prosecution claims that by 2:36 Adnan had murdered Hae elsewhere and was disposing of her body.
But during the second trial Debbie surprised defense counsel by failing to recall this statement. Counsel could have tried to refresh Debbie’s recollection with a copy of the police statement. Failing that, counsel could have offered the police statement and/or the trial transcript as proof of the fact. These ideas apparently never flashed on in counsel’s head.
Debbie, “one of the most frustrating witnesses in this case,” could have been used by the defense “to blow up the state’s timeline ….”
— Susan Simpson
Evidence proved Adnan attended track practice after school, the day Hae was murdered. The time when he arrived was disputed. The track coach could not testify for sure that Adnan was at practice, but his prior statements coupled with other evidence proved Adnan was there.
Coach Sye testified that practice started at about 4:00 pm. He previously had told police and an investigator that practice started at 3:30 and that the team members would come to practice right after study hall ended at 3:15. Counsel could have closed a gap in Adnan’s alibi of up to 45 minutes by confronting Coach Sye with these statements.
“[A]nother alibi that should have been very strong for [Adnan’s] case simply fell away.”
Nothing substitutes for adequate preparation. 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.