EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Multiple Sclerosis Fraud Case Handled by Cristina Gutierrez in 1999/2000

In prior posts, I've discussed several other first-degree murder cases handled by Cristina Gutierrez while she was representing Adnan Syed in 1999-2000. In addition to these murder cases, Gutierrez also handled another case with a connection to Adnan's case and Gutierrez's own condition.


Melissa Carol Deckelman was an assistant to the president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Maryland chapter, which is located in Hunt Valley. From January 1994 through October 19988, Deckelman allegedly stole $269,000 from the chapter, causing it "irreparable harm." Specifically, Deckelman had access to the chapter's checks and allegedly wrote out 214 of them to herself. Through this process, Deckelman was able to siphon off more than a quarter of a million dollars from the chapter, which provides information and activities for about 3,700 people with MS

Deckelman's trial was initially scheduled for September 9, 1999, in Baltimore County, but that trial never happened. Instead, Deckelman's attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, negotiated an Alford Plea in December 1999. Deckelman's sentencing hearing was originally scheduled for January 12, 1999, but it appears as if it was postponed and eventually held on February 22, 2000. As a result of that hearing, Deckelman was given a three-year prison sentence and ordered to pay restitution.

The Deckelman case is interesting for a few reasons. First, Gutierrez herself was later diagnosed with MS in 2001, but her son has said she started suffering from its symptoms by the late 1990s. I wonder whether Gutierrez suspected that she might have MS back in 1999 and how it made her feel about the case.

Second, it's interesting that the prosecution accepted an Alford Plea in the case. As far as I can tell, this was a pretty open and shut case, and this seems like the type of case in which the State might have wanted Deckelman to accept responsibility for her crimes. Instead, the State was willing to accept Deckelman's acknowledgment that the there was enough evidence to prove her guilt without any accompanying acknowledgment that she committed the crimes charged. As you might recall, part of Adnan's current IAC claim against Gutierrez is that she was ineffective in failing to ask the prosecution about a plea bargain because he likely would have taken an Alford Plea after Gutierrez told him that Asia McClain didn't check out as an alibi witness.

Third, court was in session in Adnan's case on February 22, 2000. As such, I'm assuming that Gutierrez was not present for Deckelman's sentencing hearing. I wonder who went on her behalf.

Fourth, about a year and a half after she was done representing Deckelman, Gutierrez herself was found to have stolen roughly the same amount of money from her clients -- $269,235 -- as Deckelman stole from the  Maryland chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.



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Do yyou know how much of Deckelman's restitution was ultimately paid and when?

Posted by: Allison J | Sep 10, 2015 10:29:33 AM

Interesting, this weakens both Adnan's and State's arguments regarding the IAC. Adnan's because Cristina did make deals for other clients, and there is no evidence apart from Adnan's own testimony that he requested a deal. There is no reason to believe as yet that Cristina did not forward plea deal requests to the State. From the State's point of view, they did accept Alford pleas even in open and shut cases.

Posted by: S | Sep 10, 2015 10:40:32 AM

Allison J: I'm not sure.

S: We know from the Merzbacher case that there were cases in which Gutierrez did not communicate plea deals to clients. Clearly, this didn't happen in every case, but we know from Gutierrez that it did happen in at least one other case.

Posted by: Colin | Sep 10, 2015 10:59:56 AM

Colin, if Adnan was willing to take a plea, does that show that he believed there was enough evidence to convict him and he wanted to opt for a minimum sentence? Doesn't that negate everything we all believe............that Adnan had nothing to do with it?

Posted by: shari | Sep 10, 2015 11:14:17 AM

shari: Adnan says he was willing to accept a plea deal based upon Gutierrez telling him that Asia didn't check out as an alibi witness. I can imagine Adnan feeling that he couldn't rebut the State's case when he had no one to account for his whereabouts between the end of school and the start of track practice (and Gutierrez arguably bungled the track testimony). Plenty of defendants who are factually innocent plead guilty pursuant to plea deals.

Posted by: Colin | Sep 10, 2015 11:18:34 AM

Any chance the MS Society was happy to see this stay out of the headlines and was happy to see Deckelman take a plea? Awkward to ask for money when donations have been stolen by trusted members of the charity.

Posted by: Boo | Sep 10, 2015 12:52:19 PM

"From January 1994 through October 1988" - I'm assuming this should be October 1998?

You mention CG's song mentioning she had symptoms of MS in the late 90's...this was the first I had heard about CG's children. Has he (or they?) commented on any of Adnan's case?

Posted by: Beth | Sep 10, 2015 12:52:30 PM

Beth, CGs son gave a very touching interview several months ago. Google it, I will try to find the link for you.

Posted by: Ronnie | Sep 10, 2015 2:45:43 PM

Beth - there is a newspaper interview online with CGs son. I don't have the link but her son said she took the loss of this case very hard. Also said she went drastically downhill health wise within a year of Adnans case.

Posted by: Pdxkat | Sep 10, 2015 4:14:12 PM

So this women was offered an Alford plea but chose 3 years prison instead?? If she took Alford, would she not be sentenced to prison? Then what wouldn't adnan have taken this if it maybe was offered!??

Posted by: Robyn Colon | Sep 10, 2015 6:04:20 PM

At one point I saw an article about CG written by her son

Posted by: Abby C | Sep 10, 2015 6:19:40 PM

Re: S question above. Didn't Urick testify that CG did not approach him for a plea deal? Isn't that all the proof needed to show that it did not happen?

Posted by: lavoix | Sep 10, 2015 7:59:18 PM

Boo: Possibly, but you can see from the two linked stories that the case still got a good deal of media attention.

Beth: Here’s the article: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/blog/bs-md-serial-syed-lawyer-20150408-story.html

Robyn: She accepted the Alford Plea, which is what led to the 3 year prison term.

lavoix: Urick indeed did testify that Gutierrez never approached him about a plea deal in Adnan’s case.

Posted by: Colin | Sep 11, 2015 4:52:17 AM

Here's a link to the Baltimore Sun article featuring CG's son - http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/blog/bs-md-serial-syed-lawyer-20150408-story.html

Posted by: HSMockTrialCoach | Sep 11, 2015 4:52:44 AM

In response to lavoix, the crux of Adnan's IAC claim with regard to the plea is not whether CG asked for a plea from Urick (he testified, honestly and to Adnan's benefit, that she did not), but whether Adnan told CG he wanted a plea or that he would have accepted a plea if offered by the State. Adnan's testimony on that point was rejected as not credible by Judge Welch because it was inconsistent with his remarks at sentencing.

Posted by: Jane | Sep 11, 2015 6:35:56 AM

In your opinion, do you think there are a lot of CGs out there, or was she just a particularly bad lawyer who seemed to get a lot of important cases? By that I mean, I'm sure there are lots of bad lawyers out there who practice small-time cases (ambulance chasing, etc), but it seems like she sure had a lot of very important cases that were handled very poorly. Is she an anomaly, or do you think she, like what we are seeing with the Baltimore policy/prosecutor, was just acting as many many others have done before, since, and after?

Posted by: E | Sep 11, 2015 8:56:15 AM

Is the law incumbent upon a 17 year old to ask for a plea deal, or is that something a competent attorney should investigate for their client?

Posted by: lavoix | Sep 12, 2015 5:59:00 AM

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