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Serial: Reflections on the Case and Cristina Gutierrez from her Old Professor

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Episode 10 of Serial references a conversation with me. Ron Whitman is presented as the father of another client of attorney Cristina (“Tina”) Gutierrez. According to the podcast, Tina was working on his case at the same time she was working on Adnan’s case. Gutierrez alleged to have brought me in on the case. Whitman stated that when he called me, I said I hadn’t spoken to Tina about the case in a year and a half. This is consistent with my memory. In addition, I never opened a file on the case, never did any work on the case and likely never had more than the one conversation about the case.

I am a law professor at University of Baltimore School of Law. In addition, I practice law, though not as much as I used to. Formerly, my firm concentrated on appeals and post convictions. Since my son has taken over the practice, however, we handle a great deal of workers’ compensation and other injury cases. We also represent the Maryland State Police’s largest labor organization, the Maryland Troopers Association. I’ve handled hundreds of appeals and hundreds of post convictions. A year ago I published a 3-volume treatise titled Maryland Criminal Procedure. Though I do not know the Serial case specifically, I know Baltimore criminal law and the post verdict process. I also certainly know Cristina Gutierrez.

Cristina Gutierrez

I met Cristina Gutierrez in 1976.  I was an evening division law student.  By day, I was a full-time law clerk to a Circuit Court judge in Baltimore City.  Cristina was not yet in law school, and she was a clerk to a master who was hearing juvenile cases.  Just a few years later, I was a young law professor and Cristina was admitted to UofB and was a student in my first-year course titled Legal Analysis, Research & Writing (LARW).

Cristina had already served as a law clerk to a juvenile master, and she was irritated that she had to take LARW, which was required of every first-year law student.  Cristina progressed, graduated and passed the bar, but the Board of Law Examiners did not recommend her for admission because she had a shoplifting conviction.  Her case went to the Court of Appeals (Maryland’s Supreme Court), which ultimately admitted her.

I would see Cristina from time to time.  In 1989, she brought me into a Supreme Court case. We pulled a few all-nighters together preparing the brief.  It was during this time I came to know her well.

A Lovable Mess

It’s not surprising that Adnan Syed trusted Tina. She was tenacious and, despite her own issues, was relentless for her clients. She had an extremely high give-a-shit-factor. Syed’s love and affection for her do not surprise me.

I can say with virtual certainty that she did not throw the case for more money for the appeal. To successfully do this without getting caught is almost laughable. As the defense attorney, it might be your show, but way too much is out of your control to think you could simply throw a case for appeal. I’d be shocked if that actually happened.

However, as tenacious as she was, she was also a mess. She had too much going on and did not take care of herself. This was evident the times we worked together and saw each other socially.  I saw first-hand some of the things Serial described.  She also failed to deliver on promises made to me on more than one occasion.

Cristina has since passed on, but those of us who knew her remember her with more fondness than ill-will, just like Adnan remembers her.

Just My Two Cents

Almost all long, high-profile murder trials have some level of attorney error. More often than not, in these substantial trials, colorable arguments can be made that the errors are serious attorney error, rising to the level that requires a new trial. These are post conviction proceedings. They don’t succeed as much as they should.

For what it’s worth, from someone who has handled hundreds of post verdict cases, a few things stuck out to me from the Serial case. First, why does Adnan say he wished he’d taken the deal? This is odd for someone who maintains innocence. When Koenig questioned him about this, he says (and I’m oversimplifying) because murder cases are too hard to beat in Baltimore City. This is not true. Serious felony cases are beaten with a certain regularity. Often, cases are beaten with more evidence against the defendant than what seems to have been presented here.

In Episode 11, Koenig asks important questions about character and proclivity to commit seriously violent crimes. Adnan stole from the mosque. Does that have anything to do with his ability to kill? I don’t know. What I do know is that you can seldom tell, merely from looking at them or knowing them, if someone has the ability to kill. I have been face to face with killers numerous times. I have laughed with killers. I have occasionally cried with killers. I have related to many killers as human beings. One act does not a person make. And you cannot tell, almost ever. I heard nothing in 11 episodes that makes me know he couldn’t kill and nothing that makes me know if he could. My guess is that if he killed her, only a few people on this earth know for certain he could kill. The problem is, if he didn’t, he’s the only one who knows for sure.

Finally, what I’m most fascinated about is how popular Serial became.  In my world, this case is not unique.  It was more high-profile than most and most don’t have a first mistrial.  The total days of trial was also more than average.  But it’s not unique.

Maybe it’s popular because there’s a possibility he might be innocent.  If so, the producers will never run out of stories.  Cases involving actual innocence are more common than society would like to admit.  Maybe it’s popular because of how human this potential killer is.  Let me tell you … they’re almost all human.  Like I said, I’ve met many convicted killers over the years.  I can count on one hand the monsters.

Maybe Serial is just another great whodunnit.  I believe the last episode is tomorrow.  Maybe the producers will wrap a better bow around this case than I ever could.