BALTIMORE — A convicted murderer who was the focus of a popular podcast is returning to court to argue he deserves another trial and a new chance at freedom.
The podcast “Serial” revolved around the story of Adnan Syed, now 35 and serving a life sentence. At 19, he was convicted of strangling his high school girlfriend and leaving her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore. The show raised questions about the fairness of Syed’s trial in Hae Min Lee’s death. It gained a cult following and uncovered evidence that helped prompt a Maryland appeals court to grant a hearing on the possibility of a new trial.
The case had been closed for years when producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, reopened it in the podcast in 2014, drawing millions of listeners each week — so many that the podcast shattered Apple’s iTunes store’s record for downloads, reaching 5 million faster than any other podcast program.
The hearing, scheduled to last three days before Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch, is meant to determine whether Syed’s conviction will be overturned and case retried.
“We’ve waited a long time to get back into court and to put on witnesses that will prove our claim, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do this week,” said Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney.
Syed’s motion for a new trial centres on two issues: an alibi witness who was never called to testify at Syed’s trial, and cell tower data that defence attorneys argue is inaccurate, misleading and should never have been entered into evidence.
Prosecutors called no eyewitnesses and presented no DNA evidence at Syed’s original trial in 2000. Prosecutors did present cell tower data from the night Lee was killed, saying it linked Syed to a general area where her body was found a month later. Brown argued in his motion that the state intentionally omitted a cover sheet from AT&T warning that such data is unreliable in determining a person’s exact location.
The alibi witness is Asia McClain, a former classmate who said she spotted Syed at a library the day Lee was strangled. Last year, McClain filed an affidavit saying that she’d be willing to testify on Syed’s behalf. McClain said that she contacted Syed in jail while he was awaiting trial, and Syed told his attorney at the time, Cristina Gutierrez, to contact her. But the attorney, who was later disbarred in connection with other cases, never did.
Now, McClain will have a chance to tell her story. She is expected to testify during the hearing. The state, too, will have a chance to call witnesses.
McClain’s testimony will likely reflect her affidavit and letters she sent to Syed in jail. In one letter, dated May 1, 1999, McClain wrote, “I’m not sure if you remember talking to me in the library on Jan. 13 but I remembered chatting with you.” She adds, “I have reason to believe in your innocence.”
McClain wrote that she contacted the library, which is next to their high school campus, and that they had a surveillance system. McClain also told Syed that she was trying to reach his attorney.
“If you were in the library for a while, tell the police and I’ll continue to tell what I know even louder than I am,” she wrote. “My boyfriend and his best friend remember seeing you there too.”
The Maryland attorney general’s office, which is handling the case for the state, opposed Syed’s request for a new trial. In a September filing opposing Brown’s motion, Deputy Attorney General Thiruvendran Vignarajah wrote that it’s “preposterous” to suggest that Syed received inadequate counsel.
A motion filed Tuesday shows that prosecutors intend to call the original lead prosecutor in Syed’s case, Kevin Urick, as well as other members of the prosecution team. An FBI agent who specializes in cell tower data is also on the state’s potential witness list, as is William Martin, an expert in criminal defence practices.