Richmond Journal of Law and Technology

The first exclusively online law review.

Month: November 2015

Serial Update: Questioning the Cell Phone Tower Records and an Alibi Witness


By: Quinn Novak,

I spent two solid weeks of my life listening to Sarah Koenig’s melodic voice ring through my headphones. If I had a spare ten minutes during the day, I found myself plugging in and tuning out. Like millions of other people, I was hooked on NPR’s Serial podcast and I needed to know what happened to Hae Min Lee. Did Adnan Syed really kill Hae? Did Jay conspire to kill her? Is Hae still alive and roaming the streets of California with her dad? Spoiler alert: You never find out how Hae died. I was completely devastated and almost hurled my iPad across the room when the final episode ended. Like many Serial listeners, I was left wanting more.

The Serial podcast analyzed Adnan Syed’s 2000 murder conviction of his high school friend, Hae Min Lee, and sparked an influx of further investigation into the murder.[1] In February 2014, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals granted Adnan Syed’s request for review of his case.[2] The court said that the defense should be able to present alibi witness testimony and that these statements could be considered in deliberations on whether Syed deserves a new trial.[3] “The Court of Special Appeals called on the Baltimore Circuit to Court to reopen Syed’s post-conviction hearing so [alibi] testimony could be taken.”[4]

Syed had to petition the Baltimore Circuit Court to grant his hearing [5] and Syed’s new attorney, Justin Brown, filed a motion on August 24, 2014.[6] Although the Maryland Attorney General, Thiru Vignarajah, opposed the motion, the Baltimore Circuit Court granted Syed’s request for a hearing on November 7, 2014.[7]

Syed’s hearing before the Baltimore Circuit Court will allow his lawyer to reopen post-conviction proceedings and introduce new alibi evidence.[8] The hearing will focus on the inadequate legal representation by Syed’s 2000 lawyer, Cristina Gutierez, including the fact that Guitierrez never called alibi witness, Asia McClain.[9] The Serial podcast revealed that Asia McClain had sent several letters to Syed while he was in jail telling him that she remembered seeing him at the public library on the afternoon that the prosecutors claim he killed Hae Min Lee.[10] However, Syed’s lawyer never called McClain to testify about this alibi and the prosecutors actively discouraged McClain to attend post-conviction hearings.[11] If the Baltimore Circuit Court reviews the alibi statements favorably, McClain could finally have her day in court and could offer further insight into the day that Hae Min Lee was murdered.

Another important fact that the Circuit Court hearing will focus on is the unreliability of the AT&T cell phone records that the prosecution used to place Syed’s movements on the day of the murder.[12] Justin Brown submitted a fax cover sheet from AT&T where the company raised the question of reliability of technology in 1999 to pinpoint the location of a cellphone.[13] “Brown obtained an affidavit from the state’s expert witness regarding phone technology, who said he would have wanted to know about [AT&T’s] disclaimer on the fax cover sheet and it would have changed his testimony.”[14] The defense believes that proving the cell phone towers were unreliable to trace Syed’s movements will discredit the prosecution’s theory.

The Serial podcast has played a pivotal role in popularizing Syed’s case and moving towards an appeal. The 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee captivated the nation when the podcast first aired in October 2014.[15] The twelve-episode series was “downloaded millions of times, setting records for a podcast and creating a groundswell of calls for a new trial.”[16] Further, much of the new evidence being presented to the Baltimore Circuit Court was revealed through the podcast’s investigation, such as the circumstantial cell phone tower evidence and potential alibi witness, Asia McClain.[17]

At the end of the day, like so many other listeners and avid followers of Serial, I want closure. Preferably, I would like this closure in the form of a new trial where Jay takes the stand, breaks down in tears on cross-examination, and admits that he framed Adnan and that he killed Hae. Until then, I can dream and attentively keep my ears open for news about this seemingly insignificant case that happened over fifteen years ago.



[1] Serial, NPR (Fall 2014) (downloaded using iTunes).

[2] Bill Chappell, Adnan Syed, Subject of ‘Serial’ Podcast, Gets Hearing on New Evidence, NPR (Nov. 7, 2015, 9:53 AM),

[3] Justin Fenton, ‘Serial’ figure headed to court after request for hearing granted, Baltimore Sun (Nov. 6, 2015, 9:24 PM),

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Juliet Linderman, Adnan Syed Attorney Says Key Evidence Wrong, U.S. News (Aug. 26, 2015, 12:37 PM),

[7] Chappell, supra note 1; Fenton, supra note 2.

[8] Jackie Solo, Adnan Syed Appeal Update 2015: Motion to Reopen Murder Case Granted One Year After ‘Serial’ Podcast, Int’l Bus. Times (Nov. 6, 2015, 5:16 PM),

[9] Chappell, supra note 2.

[10] Fenton, supra note 3.

[11] Linderman, supra note 6.

[12] Solo, supra note 8.

[13] Fenton, supra note 3.

[14] Id.

[15] Daniel Kreps, ‘Serial:’ Adnan Syed Allowed to Present New Evidence, Rolling Stones (Nov. 7, 2015),

[16] Fenton, supra note 3.

[17] Kreps, supra note 15.

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Your DNA Could Be Where You Weren't.


By: Ryan Suit,

DNA testing first came about in 1985 and took only two years until it was first successfully used as evidence in a trial in 1987, when Floridian Tommie Lee Andrews was convicted of rape and sentenced to 22 years in jail.[1] Since then, thousands of other criminals have been convicted of crimes in large part due to DNA evidence linking the accused to the scene of a crime.[2] However, a recent study has shown that DNA found at a crime scene might not always mean the accused person was there.[3] The study has shown that the secondary transfer of DNA, or the transfer of DNA of one person to somewhere else by another person, not only exists but actually may be a common phenomenon.[4] This could have significant repercussions for the justice system.

“Touch DNA” is DNA from skin cells that is transferred when one person touches another person or object.[5] The amount of DNA left behind from a person touching something can vary based on the duration and extent that something was touched, and it is possible that no touch DNA can be left behind at all.[6] In the alternative, DNA from a person can be found on something even when that person never touched the object.[7] This is secondary transfer. The study showed that this was possible by conducting an experiment in which “pairs of volunteers [shook] hands for two minutes, after which they handled knives that were later swabbed for DNA samples. In 85 percent of the cases, DNA from the person who did not directly touch the knife was transferred in sufficient quantity to produce a profile. In one-fifth of the samples, that person was identified as the main or only contributor of DNA to the potential weapon, despite never having touched it.”[8]

One of the first documented and recognized cases of secondary transfer DNA involved Lukis Anderson, a 26-year-old man charged with murder in California.[9] The victim was killed during an armed robbery of his home, and paramedics took his body from the scene to the hospital. Upon examining the body, forensic experts found Anderson’s DNA on the victim, and charges were later filed against him. However, during the time of the armed robbery, Anderson had a verified alibi: he was passed-out drunk in the hospital with a .40 BAC. Anderson had been found on the streets and taken to the hospital by the same paramedics who later went to the scene of the armed robbery. While touching the victim’s body, the paramedics must have transferred Anderson’s DNA onto the victim.[10]

The charges against Anderson were dropped, but this single event raises questions about the validity of DNA evidence. DNA tests are 99% accurate in identifying who the DNA is from, but it is now less certain that those tests can be as accurate in placing a person at the scene of a crime.[11] The study may have repercussions felt throughout the criminal justice system. DNA evidence linking someone to a crime may no longer be dispositive. Attorneys will need to put on experts to explain the issue of secondary transfer, and juries will have to give less weight to DNA evidence that used to make or break a case. Old cases may have to be reopened, as innocent men could be behind bars after being wrongfully convicted due to the secondary transfer of their DNA. In sum, this study on DNA evidence may have secondary effects that transfer to the legal world.


[1] Randy James, A Brief History of DNA Testing, Time (June 19, 2009),,8599,1905706,00.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Study raises questions about DNA evidence,,

[4] Id.

[5] Suzanna Ryan, Touch DNA. What is it? Where is it? How much can be found? And, how can it impact my case? (January 2012),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Study, supra note 3.

[9] South Bay Paramedics Likely Brought Innocent Man’s DNA to Murder Scene, CBS SF Bay Area (June 28, 2013, 12:41 AM),

[10] Id.

[11] James, supra note 1.


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Is Stacked Airplane Seating Next?

Airline seats

By: Sarah Jessee,

If you have been on a plane recently you may have noticed the decreasing leg-room and shrinking seat width, but the seating changes may becoming more drastic.[1] On October 1, 2015 Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer, filed a patent for stacked seating in airplanes.[2] The patent explained the justification for stacked seating and described the seating design proposal:

In modern means of transport, in particular aircraft, it is very important from an economic point of view to make optimum use of the available space in a passenger cabin… [i]n order to still more efficiently use the space in a passenger cabin of an aircraft, U.S. Pat. No. 4,066,227 proposes to position an elevated deck structure on a main deck floor in the passenger cabin of a wide-body aircraft for providing mezzanine seating area in a substantially unused upper lobe of the aircraft fuselage.[3]

Many concerns arise with the idea of stacked seating in an airplane. Is this “unused upper lobe” referring to the already limited space designated for carry-on items? How will flight attendants be able to assist those on the upper level? Are passengers expected to climb a ladder to get to their seats?[4] Most importantly, how could passengers be evacuated in case of an emergency? Despite the uncertainties and concerns with stacked seating, there are some possible benefits.

airline 1           [5]

Other than reduced airline costs, the design proposal may actually create more legroom.[6] Many airplane passengers dread that moment the flight attendant comes on the speakers reporting they have reached the appropriate altitude and passengers can recline their seats. This reduces the already limited legroom. However, with Airbus’s stacked seating design, not only would passengers’ legroom increase when the passenger above you reclined, but passengers would be able to recline further.[7] The stacked seating design would allow passengers on both the upper and lower level to fully recline.[8] Despite these advantages, there are still concerns with space when the seats are in an upright position. [9]

airline 2

However, we may never know how a flight attendant will deliver the after-dinner coffee to upper level passengers because this is one of the 600 patents Airbus files a year.[10] The company stated, “Airbus Group and its divisions apply for hundreds of patents every year in order to protect intellectual property… [t]he vast majority of items and processes patented never become fully realized technology or products.”[11] So whether you were excited or terrified by the idea, it is unlikely you will see yourself in a stacked airplane seat in the future.[12]




[1] Alison Griswold, New Airbus Patent Would Stack Passengers on Top of Each Other, Slate, Oct. 9, 2015, stack_airline_passengers_on_top_of_each_other.html.

[2] U.S. Patent No. 4,066,227 (filed Oct. 1, 2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Hugo Martin, Are Stacked Seats the New Plan to Pack in Airline Passengers?, L.A. Times, Oct. 11, 2015,

[5] Suzy Strutner, These ‘Stacked’ Plane Seats Could End the Legroom Problem Forever, huffinton Post, Oct. 7, 2015,

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Griswold, supra note 1.

[10] Strutner, supra note 5.

[11] Martin, supra note 4.

[12] Strutner, supra note 5.



Photo Source:×9/600.jpg

What about Us? Are the disabled getting a fair treatment with the rapid growth in smartphones?


By: Matt O’Toole

Have you ever wondered what kind of tablet applications are out there for disabled people? You probably aren’t the only one. In fact, part of your answer may to do with the fact that they are little out accommodating those affected with disabilities.

When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the Internet was only in its nascent stage, and e-commerce as we think of it today was unheard of.[1] Nevertheless, some courts have extended the ADA’s reach to websites that offer and sell goods or services to the public, mandating that websites are accessible to persons with disabilities.[2]

Putting aside the merits of whether the ADA, in its current form, should apply to websites at all, the question that is then raised is: how do companies make their websites fully accessible?[3] Unfortunately, there currently are no generally accepted ADA standards for website construction and that seems like a big issue that gets very little attention.[4]

How can this country be so advanced in its technology but yet be so behind on its advances to folks with disabilities?

According to the United States Bureau, 8.4% of our population has a disability, under the age of 65.[5] There is certainly a market out there and whether legislation has done enough to reach that remains to be seen.

Congress instituted section 508 in 1998 to make new online opportunities available to people with disabilities and to encourage the development of software and technologies to help make this happen.[6] An amendment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology available to disabled citizens.[7]

In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind brought Target to district court and charged that Target’s Website is inaccessible to the blind and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, along with several other California human rights act.[8]

“What this means is that any place of business that provides services, such as the opportunity to buy products on a Web site, is now a place of accommodation and therefore falls under the ADA,” said director of user experience for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns LLC Kathy Wahlbin.[9]

As baby boomers start to turn the corner, the number of disabled users increases and the software continues to develop.[10] Section 508 will continue to be relevant and I’m not sure that it’s necessarily the government at fault here. It is just that the advancement of technology comes more people, and more disabled user. It is just that we shouldn’t leave them behind.

With technology now moving to much greater heights than just the internet, I think instead of making more updates to Snapcaht, folks should consider making phone applications more accessible to those in need.

Photo Source:×400.jpg



[1] Kyle David, Web Accessibility: Section 508 Compliance , Blog, (Oct. 28, 2015), [hereinafter David]


[3] Michael J. Chilleen and Brad Leimkuhler, New ADA Lawsuits Target Website Accessibility, Corporate Counsel (June 5, 2015),


[5]United States Census Bureau. (Oct. 28, 2015),

[6]See David supra, note 1.

[7]Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-112, 87 Stat. 355 (1973).

[8] Nat’l. Fed’n of Blind v. Target, 452 F.2d 946, 956 (2006).

[9]See David supra, note 1.


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