M. Christina Gutierrez’s Other Client- the Pennsylvania Link to the Serial Podcast

/ 12.Jan, 2015
Serial Podcast, the breakout podcast from NPR, averaged over 1.5 million listeners per episode.  The podcast is a fascinating twelve part, in-depth, look at a murder case from 1999.  The podcast reviews the facts and questions regarding the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  [SPOILER ALERT, sort of]  One of the major issues which emerges late in the podcast is questions regarding the competency of Adnan’s defense attorney, M. Christina Gutierrez.  In May of 2001, a little over a year after Mr. Syed’s conviction, Ms. Gutierrez was disbarred on consent by the Maryland Court of Appeals.  Ms. Gutierrez was suffering from debilitating multiple sclerosis. Briefly mentioned in one of the episodes is Ms. Gutierrez’s representation of Zack Witman, a New Freedom, PA, fifteen-year-old accused of murdering his thirteen-year-old brother. Ms. Gutierrez also represented Mr. Witman shortly before her disbarment, and exhibited some of the same troubling behaviors in representing Mr. Witman as she did with Mr. Syed (the link is to a Baltimore Sun article written by Sarah Koenig, the creator of Serial).  Mr. Witman’s parents complained at the time that they gave Ms. Gutierrez money to retain expert witnesses who were never paid.  After her disbarment, a record number of complaints were made to the Maryland Client Security Trust Fund.   According to the podcast, the Maryland Client Security Trust Fund eventually paid out more than $200,000 to Ms. Gutierrez’s former clients. What is unclear to me is how Ms. Gutierrez came to represent Mr. Syed, as it does not appear that she was a member of the Pennsylvania bar.  While she certainly could have been admitted ad hoc vice, but a brief search did not establish that.  Interestingly, it does not appear Ms. Gutierrez was Mr. Witman’s trial counsel, as she passed away before his trial, and the evidence upon which Mr. Witman’s appeal was based appears to have been successfully suppressed by Ms. Gutierrez before subsequent counsel allowed its admission. –Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire