Firm News

Adnan Syed and the Interplay Between Legal Malpractice and Post-Conviction Relief

By Will Jordan

Imagine our delight when the words “Adnan Syed” popped up on our Facebook timeline yesterday. Six months after completing our binge of the Serial podcast, which told the tale of Adnan’s conviction for the murder of his high school classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, there finally is an update. And the update is good for Adnan. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals granted Adnan a new evidentiary hearing to allow the testimony of a potential alibi witness; testimony that, according to Adnan’s current lawyer, Adnan’s trial attorney inexplicably failed to introduce during trial. Thus, Adnan’s ground for seeking a new trial is that he is entitled to post-conviction relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. But how does that relate to a claim for legal malpractice? A couple of weeks ago, we blogged about Foondle v. O’Brien, a case decided by the Alaska Supreme Court that illustrates the difficulty of succeeding on a legal malpractice claim against a criminal defense attorney. That case also addresses the interplay between legal malpractice and post-conviction relief. Here’s the skinny from the court: (1) to prove legal malpractice, a criminal defendant must prove his actual innocence and (2) a conviction which has not been appealed collaterally estops a criminal defendant from arguing his actual innocence. The takeaway? In order to assert a claim for legal malpractice arising in a criminal case, the plaintiff must first seek and obtain post-conviction relief. Only then will the plaintiff be able to argue his actual innocence as required to support his legal malpractice claim.