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Witness: Prosecutor misled her about "Serial" podcast case

CBS affiliate WJZ

BALTIMORE -- An alibi witness for a convicted murderer profiled in the public radio podcast "Serial" testified Wednesday that a former Maryland prosecutor misled her about the importance of her testimony and that he later gave a misleading account of their conversation when he testified about it during a hearing.

Asia McClain, now known as Asia Chapman, testified Wednesday during a hearing for Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder and is seeking a new trial in a case that was spotlighted by the popular podcast.

Chapman has said she saw Syed in a library within the time when prosecutors contend he was killing his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. But she was never called to testify at his trial.

Chapman told the court that years after Syed was convicted, Syed's defense attorney, who was working on an appeal, visited her at her home and left a business card. She looked up the case and called then-prosecutor Kevin Urick because she figured he'd be less biased than the defense attorney.

During their 34-minute phone conversation during which she took detailed notes, Urick told her that Syed "killed that girl."

"I walked away feeling like (the defense) was trying to manipulate the court to get him in front of a judge," Chapman testified, adding that Urick convinced her that Syed "was 100 percent guilty, and it was a waste of my time to get involved."

But she says Urick later testified at Syed's first post-conviction hearing that his phone call with her lasted only five minutes, and said that she'd admitted that her affidavit was false.

"He said I told him everything I said in the affidavit was not true, that I wrote the affidavit because I was pressured," Chapman said of Urick's testimony. "All of this was news to me. I was in shock. I was angry that I had allowed my thoughts and opinions to be represented by a third party."

Chapman also said she would have come to court to testify even if she hadn't been subpoenaed.

"I felt it was the right thing to do," she said. "For justice to be served all information has to be on the table."

Earlier Wednesday, Syed's attorney Justin Brown told Judge Martin Welch that previous defense attorney Cristina Gutierrez made a mistake in failing to call the alibi witness. But prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah with the Maryland attorney general's office said there were reasons to think the witness might be unreliable.

Vignarajah argued that Gutierrez was a dedicated and effective attorney, and that Syed was convicted not because his lawyer was incompetent, "but because he did it." Vignarajah added that Gutierrez made a decision not to pursue McClain as a witness.

"There were all sorts of reasons that this was not a reliable witness, and perhaps a risky witness," Vignarajah said.

But Brown linked the decision to personal problems that were plaguing Gutierrez, who was later disbarred in connection with other cases.

"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. What was happening at 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."

Syed was present in court, dressed in light blue prison garb, wearing a long beard and a knit cap. His hands were shackled. Spectators filled a row reserved for the public, including friends, supporters and members of Syed's family.

The case had been closed for years when producer Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, began examining it in the podcast in 2014, drawing millions of listeners each week.

The podcast raised questions about the fairness of Syed's trial, 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.

Syed's motion for a new trial also involves cell tower data that defense attorneys argue is inaccurate, misleading and should never have been entered into evidence.

The state, too, will have a chance to call witnesses.

A motion filed Tuesday shows that prosecutors intend to call the original lead prosecutor in Syed's case, Kevin Urick, and 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 an expert in criminal defense practices.