Prompted by a podcast that turned millions of listeners into armchair detectives, a judge will now decide whether to grant a new trial to a man convicted as a teenager of murdering his high school girlfriend.
A defense lawyer argued Tuesday that evidence brought to light by the “Serial” podcast and presented in court shows Adnan Syed had an unfair trial after the 1999 strangling death of Hae Min Lee.
“We proved our case. We did exactly what we said we would. I believe we met our burden and that Mr. Syed deserves a new trial,” defense attorney Justin Brown told Judge Martin Welch.
Brown cited numerous issues raised by the podcast, such as a key alibi witness who was never called and some cellphone data misrepresented as reliably linking his client to the crime scene.
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah countered that the evidence remains “overwhelming” that Syed was properly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing Lee and burying her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore.
“This is not a popular position, but the state’s role is to do justice,” the prosecutor said.
He acknowledged the interest generated by “Serial,” a public radio podcast that extensively re-examined the long-closed case, but told the judge that Syed had a “passionate, vigorous defense” at trial, and was convicted not because of ineffective counsel or faulty evidence, but because “he did it.”
Brown said cell tower data linking Syed to Lee’s burial site was misleading because prosecutors presented it without a cover sheet warning that the information about incoming calls was unreliable.
Moreover, Brown said Syed’s trial lawyer, Christina Gutierrez, was ineffective because she didn’t contact Asia McClain, now Asia Chapman, who said Syed was with her at a public library during the time Lee was killed. She took the stand this time, vouched for Syed, and accused a prosecutor of twisting her words years ago to keep her away.
“A mistake was made not to talk to an alibi witness who could have turned this trial around,” Brown later told the judge, calling her “earnest,” ”compelling” and “extremely credible.”
“If Mr. Syed was with Ms. McClain at the library on Jan. 12, 1999, he didn’t kill Hae Min Lee. He couldn’t have,” Brown concluded.
The prosecutor countered that a pair of letters Chapman sent to Syed shortly after his arrest contained information that must have been funneled to her in a failed effort to construct Syed’s alibi. He said records show Gutierrez had in fact investigated her, and determined that “Asia McClain wasn’t a weapon for the defense; she was a potential weakness.” Vignarajah also presented to the judge a document showing that Syed’s defense attorneys interviewed a security officer at the Woodlawn Public Library three days after Syed’s arrest, proving that his defense team was pursuing the possible library alibi.
“I think Asia McClain was a very charming witness. But what Asia McClain presented in 1999 were two letters that were, at best, confusing and, at worst, doctored. And a defense attorney like Cristina Gutierrez would have seen right through them,” Vignarajah said.
Vignarajah said Syed already had an alibi: Jay Wilds, who Syed said was with him the day Lee was killed. But Wilds ultimately testified for the state that he helped Syed bury Lee’s body.
Vignarajah said that had Gutierrez called Chapman to the stand she “would have ironed out wrinkles in the state’s case, a weakness that would have led prosecutors and the police to realize that Mr. Syed, it appears, had an alibi set up all along: It was Mr. Wilds and all the people they made contact with that evening. … It becomes clear that this was not a case of an alibi witness who slipped through the cracks.”
Chapman wasn’t the only witness ignored at trial, Syed’s attorneys said. Investigator Sean Gordon testified that he managed to locate 41 of 83 potential alibi witnesses, and only four said they had been contacted by the original defense team for the 2000 trial. Of those, none was asked to testify.
Brown blamed health problems plaguing Gutierrez. She later agreed to disbarment stemming from misplaced client funds because her worsening multiple sclerosis made it too difficult to keep up with her cases and finances, and died not long after Syed’s conviction.
“Her health was failing. Her family was in turmoil,” Brown said. “Her business, it was becoming unwound. As a result of the wheels coming off the bus, the single most important piece of evidence, an alibi witness, slipped through the cracks.”
Lee’s family still believes Syed killed their daughter. Syed wrote Tuesday that he’ll keep fighting to prove his innocence.
The case was stuck for years until “Serial” producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, began examining it in 2014, drawing millions of listeners.
Koenig sat in the courtroom last week, taking notes for updates to her podcast, as transcripts from the show were entered into evidence. Witness after witness was asked if they, too, had listened to “Serial” or spoken with the reporter.
“Has the public attention helped us? Yes. I’d be crazy to deny that. I think one of the things that happened is as a result of Serial, more information became available to us, information we might not otherwise have gotten,” Brown said after the hearing.
“This might have been the first-ever open-source case where all the materials of the case were out there, so people were investigating this case all over the country. I had thousands of investigators working for me, and that produced information we otherwise would not have had, and that helped us get to where we are right now,” he added.
The deputy attorney general also praised the process, which he said made defense records available that show Syed was well-served by lawyers all along.
“This was an opportunity for the judge to have a full and complete record and make a decision that will restore faith in the system,” Vignarajah said outside the courtroom. “We were lead down a bit of a rabbit hole if you think about it.”