Prosecutor: "Serial" questions don't make Adnan Syed innocent

Convicted murderer Adnan Syed arrives at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland February 4, 2016.

REUTERS

BALTIMORE -- An alibi witness who was never called, cell phone data that was misrepresented and other legal failures justify a new trial for Adnan Syed, his defense lawyer argued Tuesday, closing an unusual hearing prompted by a popular podcast that turned millions of listeners into armchair detectives.

Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah countered that the evidence is "overwhelming" that Syed was properly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1999 strangling death of his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

"This is not a popular position, but the state's role is to do justice," the prosecutor said, acknowledging the popularity of "Serial," a public radio podcast that extensively re-examined the long-closed case.

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Adnan Syed
AP Photo/Courtesy of Yusuf Syed

Syed, now 35, was convicted at 19 of killing Lee and burying her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore. The show raised questions about the fairness of his trial, and gained a cult following as it brought to light evidence that helped prompt a Maryland appeals court to grant this hearing.

Defense attorney Justin Brown urged Judge Martin Welch to order a new trial, arguing: "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."

Brown said cell tower data linking Syed to Lee's burial site was misleading because prosecutors presented it to jurors without a cover sheet warning that information about incoming calls was unreliable, and also withheld that information from Syed's trial attorneys.

Moreover, Brown said Syed's trial lawyer was ineffective because she didn't contact Asia McClain, now Asia Chapman, an alibi witness who said she was with Syed 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 out of 83 potential alibi witnesses, he was able to locate 41, and only four told him they were contacted by the original defense team for the 2000 trial. Of those, none were asked to testify.

Brown blamed these decisions on personal problems plaguing Syed's trial attorney, Cristina 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 ... 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 the podcast in 2014, drawing millions of listeners each week.

But in the end, 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 said so, the prosecutor said, writing in a letter to the trial judge during his original proceedings that Gutierrez's "hard work, determination and belief in my innocence assures me I'm in the best hands."

Vignarajah was to continue his arguments after a brief lunch break.

The victim's relatives insisted in a statement Sunday that Syed is 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 alibi witness, they said, "did not know Hae, and because of Adnan she never will."