(BALTIMORE) — The convicted killer at the center of the wildly popular investigative podcast Serial, finally gets his day in court Wednesday, after questions about his guilt and whether or not he had a fair trial 16 years ago have been raised.
Adnan Syed, now 35, is serving a life sentence for killing his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999.
The podcast’s investigation raised doubts about the quality of Syed’s defense team as well as the reliability of key pieces of evidence used against him. The investigation also uncovered that his then-lawyer, the late Cristina Gutierrez, provided potentially disastrous counsel by not calling an alibi witness to the stand during his 2000 trial.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued an order in May directing Syed’s case to a lower court so the testimony of the witness, Asia McClain, could be added to the record. After his conviction, McClain, another high school classmate, wrote him letters in jail, saying she had seen him in the library around the same time Lee was killed.
In November, retired Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch granted Syed’s request to introduce the alibi witness testimony, as well as cell tower records that were later claimed to be unreliable, according to the carrier, saying it would “be in the interests of justice.” (It is not unusual for retired judges to hear cases).
“I don’t want to say it’s unusual, but he’s definitely beating the odds here,” said Becky Feldman, chief of the post-conviction defenders division at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. “Filing motions to re-open a post-conviction are fairly common. We probably get hearings on motions to re-open on maybe 20 percent of the cases. Most of them are just denied.”
Syed’s attorney, Justin Brown, will argue that Gutierrez, who died in 2004, violated his Sixth Amendment right to due process by failing to call McClain to testify, according to court documents filed this past summer.
Brown is also expected to try and prove the cellphone records were not reliable and should never have been used as evidence against him. In a hearing last summer, Brown presented a memo that cellular carrier AT&T had sent to police during his trial, warning about the unreliability of cell tower data.
“Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status,” the memo read. “Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location.”
Incoming calls were used as part of the evidence in trial.
A recent 34-page court document filed by the attorney general’s office shows the state plans to call in experts to rebut the defense’s claims of ineffective counsel and unreliable cellphone evidence. The state may also call former members of Syed’s defense team, as well as the original homicide detectives and the original prosecutor, Kevin Urick.
Syed and Lee were both students at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School. Lee went missing in January 1999, and was found weeks later, strangled and buried in Leakin Park, located just a few miles from the school.
Throughout his trial, questions of religious and ethnic bias were also raised, as Syed is the son of Pakistani immigrants.
So what happens next?
“I would be shocked if we get a ruling on Friday,” Feldman said. “There’s no time requirement on when a court must issue a post-conviction ruling.”
Syed’s fate rests in the hands of Welch, who could issue an oral ruling on Friday, determining if Syed will get a new trial or not. The likelihood is that he will issue a written decision at a later time, which could take weeks to months. If Syed is granted a new trial, the state will likely appeal, Feldman says. Syed could be stuck in this process for months – even years, should the court take its time.
Last week, Syed’s lawyer tweeted about the upcoming hearing.
Strong and getting stronger. Let’s go #teamSyed
— Justin Brown (@CJBrownLaw) January 30, 2016
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