Will be tough to convict subject of ‘Serial’ podcast in retrial, says UB expert featured in the podcast

Stale evidence, unavailable witnesses and time make this difficult for the state, says Charles Ewing

Release Date: July 1, 2016

“This is important news for Mr. Syed because whether you think he did this or not, the state now has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty, and that is much more difficult after 15-plus years. Some of the evidence is no longer available, witnesses will be unavailable, evidence is stale and people’s memories are not the same after that period of time.”
Charles Ewing, law professor
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO – Adnan Syed, who became well known during the first season of the hit podcast “Serial,” was granted a new trial Thursday, setting aside his conviction for the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

That is great news for Syed, says Charles Ewing, law professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Ewing was interviewed on “Serial,” weighing in on what could make someone snap and kill. His research focuses on criminal law, forensic psychology and violent behavior, and he is author of the book, “Kids Who Kill.”

“This is important news for Mr. Syed because whether you think he did this or not, the state now has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty, and that is much more difficult after 15-plus years,” says Ewing, who said the first thing he would do as Syed’s lawyer is ask for bail. “Some of the evidence is no longer available, witnesses will be unavailable, evidence is stale and people’s memories are not the same after that period of time.

“Also, so many of these people have spoken to media and made public statements about this case that their testimony is subject to withering cross examination.”

In 2000, Syed was convicted of the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and has served 16 years of a life sentence in prison. He has maintained his innocence and used all other avenues of appeal. The case was the focus of the hit podcast “Serial” and then spinoff “Undisclosed.”

On Thursday, a Maryland judge granted Syed a new trial, setting aside his conviction. The judge cited ineffective counsel when Syed’s lawyer failed to cross-examine a cell tower expert about key evidence. But that is just one small piece, says Ewing.

“The cell tower locations are one part of the evidentiary pie. The important news is that he is getting a new trial – period.  The podcast has gotten so much publicity that it will be difficult to even seat a jury,” he says. “There are so many people who are aware of this case. Who hasn’t heard of it by now? There will be many challenges for the state.”

If it weren’t for “Serial,” Ewing says, this case likely would have remained exactly where it was.

“What the podcast did was basically show the multiple aspects of reasonable doubt in this case,” he says. “They had a long time to investigate and talk to people who weren’t part of the trial. Without Serial it seems unlikely this ever would have gotten a new trial.”

Ewing says if he was Syed’s lawyer the first thing he would do is ask for bail. Because Syed now reassumes the cloak of innocence, bail should be their first request.

“It is as if he was just arrested and is awaiting trial,” Ewing says. “If it were granted – and states look at things like how dangerous a person is, how likely they are to be convicted – then Syed would post it and then would be free pending the trial.”

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