Thursday 27 October 2016

Serial: Everything we know about Adnan Syed's hearing so far

Alice Vincent

Published 08/02/2016 | 11:42

Adnan Syed
Adnan Syed

In the winter of 2014, a decade-old murder case gripped the world. Hae Min Lee, a 17-year-old South Korean immigrant, was killed in 1999; the man found guilty of her murder, Adnan Syed, had already been in prison for nearly 15 years. Serial, the award-winning podcast which broke download records, sent this local Baltimore story around the world, changing Syed's future in the process.

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The hearing: Day 3

Serial presenter Sarah Koenig recorded and released three more episodes of the podcast to report on the events of Syed's hearing. Here's what she learned on the third day:

Both sides are still battling over the value of the cellphone tower evidence. Koenig thinks that this will cause the hearing to run over into a fourth, and possibly fifth, day.

An investigation showed that of the 80 people on the witness list drawn up by Syed's original defense attorney, Cristina Guiterrez, only four said they had spoken to Guiterrez, and none had been asked about being an alibi. But Koenig says this round was inconclusive, and that Guiterrez wasn't shown to have "done nothing".

Adnan Syed, 35, who is serving a life term in prison after being convicted of murdering his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend in 1999, is shown in this still image from video footage as he is brought into Baltimore City Circuit Court in Baltimore, Maryland February 3, 2016
Adnan Syed, 35, who is serving a life term in prison after being convicted of murdering his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend in 1999, is shown in this still image from video footage as he is brought into Baltimore City Circuit Court in Baltimore, Maryland February 3, 2016

An expert witness, Dave Irwin, testified for the defence. A career defence attorney, he was "unequivocal" about the fact there should have been no reason why Guiterrez didn't call Asia McClain to be an alibi. He was convinced that the discrepancies found in her letters by the prosecution were totally normal and didn't disprove anything, and that she was a "perfect" witness. Finally, Irwin said that McClain's testimony would have changed Syed's result, which is what the hearing is trying to ascertain.

The judge will probably take "some weeks" to rule whether Syed should have a retrial or not.


The hearing: Day 2

Here's what she learned on the second day:

When Koenig first spoke to McClain for Serial, McClain said she remembered what she was doing on the day Lee was killed because it was the first snowy day of the year. The prosecutor points out that there had been an ice storm that day, but no snow. McClain says that she remembers it was hazardous weather, because it had enabled her to stay longer at her boyfriend's house and that school had been cancelled for the next two days.

McClain maintains that Syed never contacted her from jail. But the prosecutor brings up evidence from a friend called Juan that Syed had asked her to forge a letter, but had sent it to the wrong place. This makes her "very pure story about being a potential alibi look like something different."

The state have poured doubt on McClain's legitimacy as an alibi, in turn strengthening their argument that Guiterrez didn't ask her to testify as a stategy, rather than an oversight.

The expert who testified about the cellphone tower evidence at Syed's original trial was unaware a disclaimer that incoming calls couldn't be used to prove location – as two were to incriminate Syed.  More information on whether incoming calls could incriminate Syed will be revealed on the third day of the hearing.


The hearing: Day 1

Here's what she learned on the first day:

Two attorneys who had worked with Guiterrez testified to say that she had been turning down cases due to being in physical pain and that her performance in the court room had diminished in the years before taking Syed's case.

Asia McClain cut quite the dash in the court room. Koenig describes her as tall and "pretty striking-looking, she's beautiful", and wearing very high heels and bright red lipstick. McClain's testimony stuck to her original story: that she was kept waiting for a lift home from the library from her late-running boyfriend, and during that time she spoke to Syed.

McClain only wrote the letter because she had been to the Syed household that she had spoken to him in the library. His family told her that Syed struggled to remember what he did between leaving school and going to the mosque – when he was accused of killing Lee – so she wrote to him to explain that she could account for that time.

The prosecutor is "tough", and Koenig thinks that they will try to poke holes in her testimony.


The hearing


A year after Serial's first series ended, and nearly 17 after Lee was killed, Syed – now 35 – is facing his Post-Conviction Relief hearing. His new lawyer, C Justin Brown, will ask the judge from Syed's first trial, the now-retired Martin P Welch, for a retrial, arguing that Syed's right to effective counsel was compromised by his first lawyer, the late Cristina Guiterrez.

Asia McClain, whose admissions in Serial gave Syed a previously unheard alibi, will be called to the stand for the first time during the hearing. Brown will also raise questions about the cellphone evidence that was used to connect Syed to the area where Lee was killed, and which has caused debate over the conviction's validity ever since Serial. Syed may also take to the stand for the first time.

Brown will be accusing the state of Maryland of "prosecutorial misconduct" in the way they handled evidence over the cellphone records. The attorney general's office plans to rebut this by using an FBI special agent as an expert. Defense attorney William R Martin will counter Syed's claims that he was given ineffective council because Guiterrez never called McClain as an alibi witness.

Brown told the press that he was "confident that when the court hears all of the evidence it will do the right thing: grant Adnan Syed a new trial." If the judge agrees, Serial's fanatical listeners will be get to hear a new chapter in the story.

Judge Martin Welch says yes

On November 6, 2015, Welch ordered that Syed's post-conviction relief proceeding would go ahead "in the interests of justice for all parties".

Syed is given permission to appeal

Nine months earlier, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals approved Syed's application to leave for appeal. Syed had asked for post-conviction relief in January 2014, but a Baltimore circuit court denied his petition, which was based on the same grounds: that Christina Gutierrez had been ineffective as counsel. That, however, was before Serial had been recorded. The leave allowed him to appeal that denial in the hope of achieving a hearing, with a view to an eventual retrial.

C Justin Brown said at the time: "It shows that the court is interested in the issues that we raised. If they weren’t interested in them they wouldn’t have granted the [application for leave to appeal].

“We look forward to arguing in front of the panel and we view this as a step in the right direction in our efforts to get a new trial for Mr Syed.”

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