Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer made famous by the hit podcast Serial, still has a shot at getting a new trial. Key questions about the legitimacy of his 1999 conviction were left unanswered after three days of hearings last week in Baltimore, which means Syed will be back in court on Monday.
Asia McClain, now known as Asia Chapman, a central voice in the podcast, took the stand for the first time last week as Syed's new alibi witness, delivering what an attorney testifying for the defense described as a "powerfully credible" account of his whereabouts during the alleged murder that, if used in his original trial, could have "changed the ballgame's result."
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch is still considering new witnesses and new evidence that raise questions about whether Syed received ineffective counsel from a lawyer whose health and law practice were in steep decline. The reliability of AT&T cellphone records that link Syed to the site where his ex-girlfriend's body was discovered has also been called into question.
Arguments so far have largely orbited around Chapman, who maintains that she was with Syed around the time of the murder. After Syed was arrested in February 1999, Chapman contacted him and his family through letters, but she never heard from his trial defense team. Syed's current attorney, C. Justin Brown, argued that error alone warrants a new trial. Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah countered that the decision to not pursue Chapman as an alibi witness was "a wise decision or at a minimum, a tactical one."
On Wednesday — and well into Thursday — Chapman, 34, gave an exhaustive account of how she spent the days, weeks, and years following the murder of Hae Min Lee, who had broken up with Syed a few weeks before she was killed.
Chapman talked the court through two letters she wrote to Syed in the days following his arrest on February 28, 1999, an affidavit she signed after his conviction, and notes from a phone conversation a decade later, during which she says the chief state prosecutor played down the importance of her story to Syed's case. She said she only realized that she could have influenced the case when she heard her own voice on Serial in 2014.
Testifying for the defense, attorney David B. Irwin told the court that Syed's trial lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, should have investigated Chapman's alibi as a potential defense strategy. He said that "to meet a minimum standard of defense care, [Gutierrez] had to talk to Asia McClain — she had to investigate what Asia McClain was saying."
Looking at Chapman's two letters to Syed on a projector screen, Irwin said her testimony "takes away any confidence one would have in the verdict of that case".
The state will cross-examine Irwin when proceedings resume on Monday.
Syed, now 35, is serving a life sentence plus 30 years for Hae's murder. She went missing in January 1999 when they were both 18 and students at Baltimore's Woodlawn High School. Hae, a Korean-American, was found weeks later, strangled to death and buried in Leakin Park, just a few miles from the school.
In a packed courtroom, members of the public sat alongside Syed and Hae's friends, relatives, and supporters. The attendees included Syed's mother, brother, and best friend, and members of Hae's extended family and Baltimore's Korean community.
Serial creator Sarah Koenig, who stepped out of the press line Wednesday to embrace Syed's tearful mother, is both reporter and subject at these hearings. Her name and the podcast have been mentioned several times by both sides.
Serial's first season, which investigated the merits of the case against Syed, topped 120 million downloads and created legions of supporters who are now convinced of Syed's innocence.
Despite newfound doubts about his guilt by some members of the public, Syed was presented to the court as a convicted murderer. He was shackled at his ankles and wrists, and wore a pale blue prison uniform, a long beard, and a skull cap. He occasionally waved to his family while entering the courtroom. In a statement delivered through Vignarajah, who is arguing the state's case, Hae's family said the fresh hearings have brought on "a nightmare we thought was behind us."
"We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000, and we look forward to bringing this chapter to an end so we can celebrate the memory of Hae instead of celebrating the man who killed her," the statement said.
But 15 years later, Chapman maintains that she was with Syed in the library adjacent to their high school at 2:15pm on the afternoon when authorities believe the murder was committed. Chapman, who was 17 at the time, says she remembers the day of the murder clearly because she normally left school around 10:45am as part of her academic program, but on January 13, 1999, she was in the Woodlawn Public Library for several hours, waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up. That's when she spoke to Syed, she told the court, for 15-20 minutes.
"I was glad to see someone I knew," she told the court, explaining that she remembered the encounter because she had been kept waiting. She wrote in a letter to Syed on March 1, 1999, the day after his arrest, that she remembered seeing him, as did her boyfriend and his friend when they eventually arrived. After writing the letter, she said she "picked up the phone to call the police and I think I hung up because I got scared," she told the court.
"When Hae was found dead, we all tried to remember the last time we saw her or spoke to her," she told the court. "I remembered talking to Adnan about her," she said. She also recalled telling two people about it: her Spanish teacher and her ex-boyfriend. Pressed by Vignarajah, she couldn't recall whether she told anyone else.
Based on her conversation that day with Syed, Chapman said she "couldn't reconcile his demeanor with the idea that he killed her." By the time the trial rolled around, she was focused on "adjusting" to college life, and didn't follow the proceedings.
In 2010, a decade after Syed's conviction, Chapman's husband spoke to an investigator working for Syed's new attorney, C. Justin Brown, asking her to contact him about the case.
Instead of contacting Brown, Chapman told the court she called the state's chief prosecutor, Kevin Urick, thinking he was "the good guy," and would "probably be a better person to give me non-biased information about the case at the time."
Chapman took notes during this April 2010 phone call, which she showed to the court. It's this call that led Chapman to believe her testimony was unimportant, she said. After speaking with Urick on the phone, Chapman didn't follow up with Brown.
"I didn't think it was my place," she said. Syed's 2012 post-conviction hearing, also heard by Judge Welch, was unsuccessful.
Chapman later learned, she said, that Urick had testified at those hearings that she had recanted her affidavit during a five-minute phone conversation. Chapman showed the court phone records indicating the call actually lasted 34 minutes, and she denied recanting her testimony. Urick is on the state's witness list and could be called to testify in the coming week.
In an exhaustive cross-examination that saw Chapman break down in tears recalling Lee's burial in a shallow grave, Vignarajah sought to poke holes in Chapman's testimony and questioned her memory of events.
Vignarajah asked Chapman if she wrote a second, typed-up letter dated March 2, 1999, much later than she claimed, and whether she was fed the information in that letter from Syed while he was in jail. Vignarajah read a statement from another student at Woodlawn saying Syed "gave a letter for a girl named Asia to type up," and inquired as to why the second letter contained so many details about the case.
Chapman said the information in the second letter was "all gossip" from peers at school, and that she didn't know where it originated. She insisted she wrote the letter at school on March 2, 1999.
The state defended Gutierrez's performance and her decision not to call Chapman as a witness, saying it was not "brusque," but tactical and strategic.
Vignarajah objected to almost every question concerning the finer details of Gutierrez's health, claiming that the inquiries "prey on stigmas associated with illness." Many of the objections were sustained, with some responses struck from the record entirely.
Two close friends and colleagues of Gutierrez, who died in 2004, answered questions about her performance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both detailed a steep decline in the star lawyer's health and work performance. Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001.
Philip Dantes, a private practice lawyer and Gutierrez's close friend, said he observed a dazzling early career followed by a steady decline starting around 1997, two years before she took on Syed's case. He spoke of Gutierrez struggling to walk and to see.
"You're saying she couldn't ambulate around a courtroom during her defense of Mr. Syed?" Vignarajah asked during cross-examination. "That's your testimony under oath?"
"No," Dantes answered. "'She wasn't herself' is my testimony."
William Kanwisher, an attorney and staff investigator at the federal public defender's office, worked closely with Gutierrez in 1994 and 1995. He described her as "fierce," and "quite a legendary public defender," but said that when he worked at her firm from 1997-1999, she became unable to handle her workload.
A heated and highly-technical debate over the accuracy of phone records used to tie Syed to the crime scene at two crucial points dominated the discussion on Friday afternoon, and will continue into next week.
Brown argued that his new evidence "eliminated any evidentiary value" of the cellphone records. He told the court that Abraham Waranowitz, the expert who placed Syed at the crime scene, was unaware of a fax cover sheet that instructed him on how to read the cellphone records.
"Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status," the cover sheet said. "Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location."
In October 2015, Waranowitz issued an affidavit recanting his own statements at trial, saying the instructions on that cover sheet could have changed his testimony.
Vignarajah downplayed the importance of the cover sheet. The prosecutor called FBI special agent Chad Fitzgerald, who said that Waranowitz's analysis placing Syed at the crime scene was "impressive" especially for 1999. The FBI agent also said he had not heard the argument about the difference in accuracy between incoming and outgoing calls.
Brown produced records that placed Syed in the Woodlawn neighborhood during one call, and in Washington, DC, 27 minutes later. He estimated that the drive between those points would take about an hour. Fitzgerald responded that he wasn't sure about that, and would have to take a deeper look at the records to understand what was going on.
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