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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.
We’ve grown accustomed to the “battle of the experts” and the role of opinion testimony at trial. Experts can do much more than persuade a jury about the existence of facts. Experts can help attorneys understand the importance of key aspects of a case, making the difference in the outcome at trial. Nothing illustrates this better than the now notorious “Serial” case, Maryland v. Syed.
Scientific evidence played a huge role in convicting Adnan Syed. The State used cell phone location data to place Syed at crime scenes and corroborate accomplice testimony. The State also used autopsy findings to support its theory. According to Simpson and Miller, defense counsel’s failure to consult with experts to combat these theories was her biggest mistake. Had counsel understood the evidence she could have successfully sought its exclusion or made devastating advantage of it.
Even able, veteran litigators are unlikely to understand or even recognize all of the technical or scientific issues in a given case. Competent counsel would be loath to proceed in knowledge of such ignorance but unfortunately probably often do proceed in the presence of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” The cell phone and autopsy evidence presented two such issues.
“[T]he state’s case would have been dissolved, basically.”
— Colin Miller
The State relied heavily records that showed the location of the cell phone towers accessed by calls originating from—and in one especially important moment, received by—Syed’s cell phone. The perception of this data’s infallibility undoubtedly influenced the jury. But cell phone location data could not conclusively establish that a call originated from a specific location.
Defense counsel almost certainly could have had this evidence excluded. Maryland is Frye state, meaning scientific evidence must be generally accepted before it’s admissible. Prior to Syed, such evidence hadn’t been admitted in Maryland and had been rejected in other states’ courts.
Defense counsel also failed to consult an expert about autopsy results. The State claimed that Lee’s body was “pretzeled” in the trunk of her car and buried on its right side five hours later. This theory did not comport with the lividity—the pooling of blood within the body by gravity—evidence, which was fixed in front, showing Lee’s body had lain face down for the 8-12 hours from death. The jury never heard this disconnect between the State’s theory and reality.
The Serial case is replete with teaching moments. 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.