As I assume anyone bothering to read this blog would already know, Adnan’s PCR hearing concluded last week after five days, eight witnesses, and approximately 3,000 donuts consumed by various members of the Undisclosed team. We published daily on-the-fly podcast updates of the hearing while it was ongoing, and in a week or two, we’ll be following up with a full-length episode recapping the entirety of the hearing in greater detail.
In the meantime, however, I’d like to take a moment to address some comments made by the prosecutor, Thiru Vignarajah, at a press conference held immediately after hearing ended. During this press conference, he outlined what he believed to be the State’s strongest evidence that Gutierrez was not ineffective in failing to investigate Asia McClain as an alibi witness, in a manner very similar to the claims he had made earlier that day during his closing argument:
Reporter: What’s the state’s best evidence, and why do you think the State is going to win the hearing?
Vignarajah: [. . .] Although there are victims of ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr. Syed is not one of them. And if you’re looking for the best piece of evidence for that, all you have to do is look at the record that defense counsel had in possession until very recently, and what you see is investigative step followed by investigative step, scrutiny after scrutiny, lines of cross examination that were pioneering at the time, and were conducted by one of the most seasoned, effective defense attorneys of her time.
And if you want to focus on two thing it would be this:
First, that the security officer at the Woodlawn Public Library was interviewed within 3 days of Mr. Syed’s arrest along with the track coach, and so if anyone was wondering if the investigators and the attorneys were taking seriously a potential alibi, they certainly were, and the defense’s own file confirms that.
And secondly, again it’s not a conspiracy, it’s common sense, when you’re client is asking how mail is scrutinized, when you see notes that your best friend is telling detectives that a girl named Asia is being asked to type up a letter, and then you see that letter with lots and lots of facts that come from exactly one place, which is the defendant’s own search warrant, it’s pretty clear that a seasoned attorney like CG could see those warning signs a mile away.
These claims are varying degrees of misleading, irrelevant, and false. They are not based on evidence, but on the prosecutor’s misinterpretation of completely innocent materials found in the defense file. To show why, I will go through them line by line, and explain the actual basis of the State’s claims, and why the reality is radically different from what the State would have the public (and the court) believe.
Although there are victims of ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr. Syed is not one of them. And if you’re looking for the best piece of evidence for that, all you have to do is look at the record that defense counsel had in possession until very recently, and what you see is investigative step followed by investigative step, scrutiny after scrutiny.
If this were the case, the State would have shown this evidence during the hearing. Since he did not, we can safely assume that the defense file does not, in fact, contain evidence of a thorough investigation performed by Cristina Gutierrez.
Does the defense file, as Thiru claims, show “investigative step followed by investigative step”? Well, yes, it is in fact a defense file, so by definition it contains a record of an investigative step followed by another investigative step. But the fact that investigative steps were taken is not evidence in the State’s favor; it is an obvious fact that anyone would know, with or without looking at the defense file. That some form of investigation occurred says nothing about the quality or effectiveness of that investigation. For instance, sending multiple subpoenas to inaccurate addresses is an investigative step — it is just not a very good one. Likewise, obtaining copies of the photos in the prosecutor’s file is an investigative step — but failing to follow up with those photos with a medical expert was an investigative misstep with disastrous consequences for Adnan. Pulling a copy of the Woodlawn High School yearbook and calling the top 8 track athletes listed there is also an investigative step — but choosing to investigate alibi witnesses for the time Adnan was at track based on the track team’s relative athletic ability rather than by their relative likelihood of having seen Adnan on January 13th is so stupid it is tragic.
In short, the State’s evidence that Gutierrez performed a thorough investigation amounts to no more than unsupported claims during a press conferences, which were submitted in lieu of any evidence that existed in a form that permitted it to be presented to the court.
lines of cross examination that were pioneering at the time,
Here, I believe, the State is referring to Gutierrez’s cross of Waranowitz here. He mentioned at some point during the hearing that she was the first to make certain challenges to cellphone evidence, that defense attorneys to this day continue to use. Of course, he neglected to mention that those lines of cross-examination are based on a completely lack of understanding about the functioning of a cellular network.
If further proof is needed of Gutierrez’s complete dereliction of duty when it came to the cell evidence, let’s look at her own words on the subject:
And yet, according to the State, the attorney who did not even look at the cellphone evidence, because she did not care about it, was incredibly effective — indeed, pioneering! — in the field of cell evidence defense.
and were conducted by one of the most seasoned, effective defense attorneys of her time.
The attorney that Thiru is calling “the most seasoned, effective defense attorney of her time” set a state record for most claims brought against her before the Attorney Grievance Commission. Her failures to take even the most basic steps in many of the cases she was involved in during the same period of time she represented Adnan (i.e., failing to brief issues, failing to communicate plea offers, falsely claiming to be consulting with experts she was not) have resulted in incredible amounts of damage to the clients she victimized, both those whose stories we know and many more still whose we do not.
And if you want to focus on two thing it would be this:
First, that the security officer at the Woodlawn Public Library was interviewed within 3 days of Mr. Syed’s arrest along with the track coach,
On March 3rd, Drew Davis, the defense investigator hired by Adnan’s attorney, interviewed Officer Steve. He did not take any notes of this interview, and the only reference made to these notes in the defense file is from a billing invoice that Davis submitted:
Asserting that this document has any relevance to Adnan’s claims in the PCR hearing is so strained that it borders on meritless. On March 3rd, it is virtually certain that neither Adnan nor his defense attorneys had Asia’s letters, which were mailed no sooner than March 2nd and March 3rd. We do not know why Davis spoke to Officer Steve, or what he spoke to him about, but there was nothing significant enough about the conversation to be worth preserving. According to Thiru, though, this is the State’s best evidence against Adnan, because it is proof that shortly after Adnan’s arrest, his attorneys were looking into whether they could locate alibi witnesses for where Adnan was after school that day.1
But if Adnan’s first words to his attorneys were, “I think I was at the library and then I was at track,” that is evidence of innocence, not evidence of guilt! It is the same alibi he is advancing now at the PCR hearing, and his bail attorneys’ prompt initial steps to investigate that alibi shows that they took Adnan seriously.
The fact Officer Steve (presumably) had no useful information to provide the defense investigator is not evidence, in any respect, that Adnan’s alibi was no good. It just means the single witness Davis spoke to could not verify it. In no legal universe is that a basis to desist all further investigative efforts.
As was made clear from the testimony last week of both the Woodlawn librarian and the security guard, however, the security guard’s failure to specifically recall seeing Adnan on January 13th is yet another meaningless fact with no evidentiary relevance. Both the Woodlawn librarian (called by the defense) and the security guard (called by the State) testified that they might remember a student they spoke to that day, but hundreds of students came through the library between 2pm and 4pm, and they would not be able to say whether or not a student hadn’t been in the library based on whether or not they remembered seeing them.
To comment briefly on Officer Mills: his testimony is on my top 10 list of most bizarre witness testimonies I have ever seen in court. Officer Steve was contacted a week before the hearing, and interviewed twice. He was then subpoenaed to testify for the state for as to three facts:
- He does not recall being questioned by Davis, Adnan’s attorneys, or anyone else in connection with this case
- The library did not have cameras in January 1999 (and therefore Asia is lying)
- Adnan Syed was not in the library on January 13, 1999 (and therefore Adnan’s attorneys reasonably did not pursue the Asia alibi)
At trial, he then testified to the following:
1. He does not recall being interviewed by Davis, Adnan’s attorneys, or anyone else in connection with this case
Assuming that Davis really did speak to Officer Steve on March 6, 1999, Officer Steve’s lack of memory of that encounter doesn’t have much significance for Adnan’s case. If, for instance, Davis asked him, “Do you have any records of a disturbance on Jan. 13, 1999,” then Officer Steve would never have known in the first place that he’d been questioned in connection with Adnan’s arrest.
2. He did not remember any cameras on that side of the library building, but it was possible there were cameras he did not know of, because that was not his responsibility.
My notes from the hearing have two exchanges which should clarify how little light Officer Steve was able to shed on this. First, on direct,
Thiru: Is it possible there were cameras at the library that you did not know of?
Officer Steve: Yeah, it’s possible, possible.
And then on cross,
Chris: Could there have been cameras at the library you were not aware of?
Officer Steve: Yes.
Officer Steve has no idea if there were cameras. There could have been, he just did not know of them because they were not his responsibility.
3. He did not see Adnan Syed in the library on January 13th, but he easily could have been there and Officer Steve either didn’t see him or didn’t remember seeing him.
During cross, Officer Steve frankly acknowledged that, despite what the detectives’ notes said, he could not say for certain whether or not Adnan had been at the library that day. Perhaps he misspoke when speaking to the detectives, or perhaps the detectives took liberties in what they wrote down. Either way, the following exchange tells you all you need to know about whether Officer Steve actually believes he could tell whether or not Adnan had been at the library that day:
Chris: They showed you yearbook photos of a number of students from 17 years ago?
Officer Steve: Yes.
Chris: And they asked you to determine if one of them had been in the library on January 13, 1999?
Officer Steve: Yes.
Chris: That’s kind of a ridiculous question, isn’t it?
Officer Steve, speaking in a knowing/amused tone: I’m not answering that one!
So Officer Steve’s testimony was a complete dud for the State. Nothing about his testimony supports the State’s position at the PCR hearing in any way. The bar for “best State’s evidence” must have been set very low indeed, if this makes the cut.2
and so if anyone was wondering if the investigators and the attorneys were taking seriously a potential alibi, they certainly were, and the defense’s own file confirms that.
Yes, Adnan’s initial attorneys were taking the investigation seriously, because that is what an attorney is supposed to do. Unfortunately, Flohr and Colbert only represented Adnan during the bail stage, and six weeks after his arrest, Gutierrez took over his case. It is Gutierrez’s failure that is the basis of Adnan’s IAC claim, and the fact that his bail attorneys were competent and diligent has no bearing on Adnan’s claim that Gutierrez was ineffective in her representation of him.
And secondly, again it’s not a conspiracy, it’s common sense, when your client is asking how mail is scrutinized,
What Thiru is alleging never happened, and there is no evidence to support it. And unless he is an idiot — which, without question, he is not — he had to have known that the notes that are the basis of his claim have nothing to do with any obstruction of justice scheme. In short, a prosecutor for the State of Maryland misrepresented evidence at Adnan’s PCR hearing, in support of his claim that another attorney — one who was in fact present in that very courtroom — had been and continued to be complicit in a scheme to fabricate the existence of an alibi witness.
Everyone, regardless of their position on Adnan’s guilt, should find this horrifying.
To explain what is going on, it helps to look at the document that is the “source” (scare quotes warranted) of the prosecutor’s claim. The defense file contains a page of notes written by Chris Flohr (Adnan’s attorney during the initial bail hearings) on March 6, 1999, the top of which looks like this:
These notes contain short, jotted-down references to a number of issues related to Flohr’s representation of Adnan, such as administrative matters, information needed for investigative purposes, getting legal releases signed, and fixing the bail issue in which Adnan’s date of birth was incorrectly listed.
In short: this is an attorney’s to-do list. A list of things for Flohr to discuss with his client when he sees him in jail, things for him to pursue as lines of investigation, and paperwork issues to be taken care of. Items were checked off as he went along — like after Flohr told his client about how to have people send him self-addressed stamped envelope in their letters to him so that he would be able to write them back, and after Flohr gave a routine cautionary reminder that everything his client sent and received through the mail could and would be monitored by authorities.
While I do not know what regulations Baltimore City jails had in place in 1999, sending an inmate a self-addressed stamped envelope with a piece of paper is, in institutions where permitted, a standard way of giving the inmate you are writing the materials necessary to actually write back, and that is clearly what Flohr’s notes here are referencing. As shown from guides published by correctional institutions and other agencies about how to write to inmates:
- Each week a prisoner is allowed to send one free letter. If they want to send more than this then they need to purchase stamps and envelopes from the prison shop/canteen. Alternatively you can post self addressed stamped envelopes to the prisoner so they can post letters back to you
- Inmates will be permitted to receive only the following types of materials through routine mail: [. . .] Self-addressed stamped envelopes. These items do not count toward the 15 page limitation for additional materials, but cannot exceed the equivalent of 20 (1 ounce) first class stamps.
- Further, inmates may possess only the personal property, materials, supplies, items, commodities and substances received or obtained from authorized sources, as permitted in the institution’s procedures. Even the possession of excessive stamps can become an economic bargaining tool. Sending a client only self-addressed pre-stamped envelopes avoids any problems.
But even setting aside all that, Thiru’s conspiracy claim has overlooked an obvious point that disproves his entire argument. Namely, WHY THE FREAKING HELL WOULD ASIA NEED A SELF-ADDRESSED STAMPED ENVELOPE FROM ADNAN?? Asia isn’t in jail! Asia can buy her own envelopes and stamps! And buy her own “one piece [of] paper”! Why, oh why, would this notation from Flohr ever be, in any universe, evidence of Adnan asking for materials that he could use to solicit a false alibi from an acquaintance?
Flohr’s notes are, as anyone with criminal law experience should be able to see, about people writing letters to Adnan, and have nothing do with a hypothetical request to enlist an attorney’s help to carry out a conspiracy to fake an alibi. Flohr’s notes are not, as anyone with common sense should be able to see, about how Adnan can obtain materials to write out to another person and request that they write back with a letter that sets forth a falsified alibi.
In the words of Justin Brown, “I have a problem when prosecutors present info in a manner that they know to be inaccurate.” Thiru is a very smart man, and I will not insult his intelligence by presuming he holds a genuine belief in such a stupid theory, but that raises a much more troubling concern. At the PCR hearing, Thiru accused another attorney of being, at best, silently complicit in a scheme to commit obstruction of justice, and at worst, an active participant in the scheme, despite the fact that Thiru knew or should have known that his supporting “evidence” for this claim was a sham.
This is not okay. This is so far from okay.
Moreover, Flohr was actually in the courtroom for most of Adnan’s five day hearing, available to testify at a moment’s notice. If Thiru believed that Adnan had solicited Flohr’s help in constructing a false alibi, then he should have called him to the stand and asked him about it, not used his imagination to conjure up a conspiracy out of a defense attorney’s routine checklist of things to discuss with his client.
As with the rest of its case at the PCR hearing, however, the State preferred to submit its own willful misinterpretations of innocuous notes in lieu of any actual evidence.
when you see notes that your best friend is telling detectives that a girl named Asia is being asked to type up a letter,
The Ja’uan notes issue has already been addressed in detail in other places, so I will just add a couple notes to it here. First, if anyone doubts the way in which notes jotted down by the police during an interview can be misleading when read out of context, simply look at Officer Steve’s testimony for your proof. Second, for Thiru to be right about the Ja’uan notes, it would mean that Ritz and MacGillivary were such terrible detectives that a defendant’s friend told them about his scheme to falsify an alibi, and they didn’t take a damned step to follow up on it.
And then there’s one other point in response to Thiru’s claim that is critical: although Thiru says, “when you see notes that…,” implying that Adnan’s attorneys made strategic decisions based upon their interpretation of the Ja’uan notes, such a thing never could’ve happened. Why? Because those notes were not disclosed to the defense until 2010. At the time of Adnan’s trial, no one connected with the defense in any respect ever had a clue those notes existed. The defense could not have obtained this information from Ja’uan, either, because Gutierrez’s team did not make contact with him until February 20, 2000, at the very end of the second trial, and those notes reflect nothing about any possible knowledge he might have had of either Asia or Adnan’s alibi defense. In short, Thiru’s conspiracy reading of the Ja’uan notes had nothing to do with any decision, strategic or otherwise, ever made by the defense.
and then you see that letter with lots and lots of facts that come from exactly one place, which is the defendant’s own search warrant, it’s pretty clear that a seasoned attorney like CG could see those warning signs a mile away.
Thiru made this claim a half dozen times during the hearing, and questioned Asia about it on cross, aggressively and at length. But it is not true. There is exactly one fact that appears in both the search warrant affidavit and Asia’s letters: that Hae was buried in Leakin Park. That’s it. No other facts from Asia’s letters appear anywhere in the search warrant.
Plus, the “facts that come from exactly one place” part of Thiru’s argument is even more bogus, given that not only are the “facts” from Asia’s letters self-evidently not in the search warrant affidavit, but that during the course of the PCR hearing Thiru had been shown numerous sources that did contain those facts, and that Asia would have had access to on March 2, 1999. I guess he must’ve forgotten about that by the time the press conference rolled around.
And this is what Thiru calls the State’s best evidence in opposition to Adnan’s petition for a new trial?
Damn, no wonder I feel so hopeful.
1. We know that Adnan told his attorneys that he believed he had a conversation about Ramadan with his track coach, Coach Sye, on January 13th, because that’s what Coach Sye says the defense investigator asked him about. The same day that Davis interviewed Coach Sye (March 6th), he also went to speak to the library security guard. To the extent that any inference can be drawn from this, it is that Adnan may have also identified the library as another location he had visited after school on the day of Hae’s disappearance.
2. So, all that aside, what actually is the deal with Officer Steve? Why on earth did the State call him in the first place, and what exactly did Officer Steve think he was talking about?
Well, best I can figure, based on the exhibits and testimony from the hearing, Officer Steve was under the belief that Hae had been murdered before January 13, 1999, and that he was being questioned about whether he had seen her killer in the library after her death.
Take a look at what the detectives’ notes say from Officer Steve’s second interview:
When [Officer Steve] saw Syed’s picture, he can say for certain he was not in the library the day of Wed, Jan 13, 1999
If Syed was in the library [Officer Steve] states he would have brought it to the attention of police.
At trial, Officer Steve gave testimony that was almost identical to his previous comments to the detectives the week before:
Thiru: If you had recognized Mr. Syed [in the library on January 13th], what would you have done?
Officer Steve: Call 911.
A perfectly reasonable response — if you mistakenly believed that, as of January 13, 1999, Adnan had been a murderer that the police were trying to arrest. Officer Steve testified that he remember seeing Adnan’s picture in the news, so he knew what Adnan looked like, and — as Officer Steve reasonably testified — if he had seen this murderer at the library where he was a security guard, he would have responded by calling 911. Therefore Officer Steve is confident he did not see Adnan Syed in the library on January 13, 1999, because if he had, he would have called the police to alert them to the fact that he had found the murderer they were looking for.
So Officer Steve’s testimony was not ridiculous at all, although it appeared that way at first glance. His only mistake was in assuming that the detectives were asking him reasonable questions, and he responded accordingly. Because why on earth would detectives show up at a security guard’s workplace and ask him something as ridiculous as whether he could confirm whether or not a student of no particular note had been it the library on a specific (but uneventful) day 17 years ago? No detective would be useless enough to ask such a thing, surely.