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 the evidence brought to light by the "Serial" podcast and now presented in court proves that 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," said defense attorney Justin Brown, urging Judge Martin Welch to reverse Syed’s conviction.
He cited numerous issues raised by the podcast and presented during this hearing, including the facts that a key alibi witness was never called, and that some cell phone data was misrepresented as reliably linking his client to the crime.
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah countered that the evidence remains "overwhelming" that Syed was properly convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
"This is not a popular position, but the state’s role is to do justice," the prosecutor said, acknowledging the interest generated by "Serial," a public radio podcast that extensively re-examined the long-closed case.
Syed, now 35, was found guilty of killing Lee and burying her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore.
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 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.
"A mistake was made not to talk to an alibi witness who could have turned this trial around," Brown said, calling Chapman "earnest," "compelling" and "extremely credible."
Brown said, "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."
She wasn’t the only defense 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 were asked to testify.
Brown blamed personal problems plaguing Syed’s trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who was later disbarred and then died.
"At the time of the Syed case (Gutierrez) was unable to handle her cases," he said. "Her health was failing, her family was in turmoil … 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."
The case had been closed for years when producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, began examining it in 2014, drawing millions of listeners to her weekly podcast. Koenig sat in the courtroom last week, taking notes for updates to her podcast, as witness after witness was asked if they too had listened to "Serial" or spoken with the reporter.
Despite this renewed attention, the prosecutor said, Syed wasn’t convicted because of ineffective counsel or faulty evidence, but because "he did it."
Vignarajah said Gutierrez put on a "passionate, vigorous defense," and "poured every ounce of her great talents into Mr. Syed." Syed himself wrote to the trial judge during his original proceedings saying that Gutierrez’s "hard work, determination and belief in my innocence assures me I’m in the best hands," he noted.
The victim’s relatives insist he’s guilty.
"Unlike those who learn about this case on the Internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials — so many witnesses, so much evidence," their statement read. The defense’s key alibi witness, they said, "did not know Hae, and because of Adnan she never will."
(Copyright (c) 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)