Some of the main, cellphone-related evidence in the trial of convicted murderer Adnan Syed was called into question in a new motion filed in court on Monday. The motion is part of a larger defense strategy to bring the court system of Baltimore in alignment with the views of fans of Serial, arguably the most successful podcast of all time.
Despite not directly arguing for his innocence, the true crime podcast questioned the basis for Syed's conviction in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee—a case by the prosecution largely built around cellphone records. By detailing a narrative of his deeds alongside a record of his calls, the prosecution convinced a jury to convict Syed.
Lee's body was found in a local park called Leakin Park, and at a critical moment in the story of the crime, an incoming call seemed to place Syed at the burial site. The fan map below shows locations of the prosecution's narrative in blue, and approximate locations of cellphone towers that interacted with Syed's phone in yellow.
The prosecution's version of events was backed by testimony from Jay Wilds, a friend of Syed's who confessed to being his accomplice. The podcast, however, demonstrated that there were enormous inconsistencies in Wilds' version of events, and ultimately suggested that even if Syed arguably had a motive and an opportunity to commit the crime, the prosecution's specific narrative had been totally implausible.
Now, Syed's attorney, C. Justin Brown, is arguing over a technicality, though not a trivial one: The phone records handed over by AT&T were meant to be taken with a grain of salt, according to the telecom company. There was originally a cover page on the record, stating that "Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location," but it was allegedly disregarded by the prosecution, and completely unknown to defense council Cristina Gutierrez.
After Serial, a second, much grittier podcast called Undisclosed has filled the Serial-shaped hole in some fans' hearts. Although an overt defense of Syed produced by one of Syed's attorneys, Rabia Chaudry, that podcast has revealed persuasive evidence, including the revelation of the AT&T cover sheet.
In May, when Syed was granted a stay of appeal, Maryland attorney Douglas Colbert, who worked with Syed during his bail hearing told VICE that the Maryland court system was likely choosing its moves very carefully. "The court wants to proceed with the utmost care in making this decision, and does not want to rush something which has created a great deal of interest in whether or not Mr. Syed received a fair trial," he said.
The May ruling had nothing to do with these phone records. It stalled the appeals process, and shifted everything to a special kind of trial court focused on two pieces of possible shoddy lawyering, for which Syed might deserve a new trial: there was the question of whether Gutierrez failed when she didn't pursue a plea bargain; then there was whether or not a critical witness named Asia McClain—who will be allowed to testify at the new trial—could offer Syed a clean alibi, as she seemed to do in her appearances on Serial.
This new filing appears to simply be one more possible reason for a post-conviction hearing. It's a process that looks like it's going to stretch out for quite a while, whether Syed's conviction is overturned or not.
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