Serial star Adnan Syed back in court for murder appeal of girlfriend that inspired hit podcast
The podcast revolved around the story of Adnan Syed, now 35 and serving a life sentence for the murder of his high school girlfriend
A man convicted of the murder of his girlfriend 15 years ago who became the subject of widely popular podcast Serial, suffered an injustice of “epic proportions,” his lawyers said, as they argued for the case to be reheard.
Adnan Syed’s high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee was murdered on January 13, 1999 – strangled and buried in a shallow grave. In 2000 he was found guilty of her killing and sentenced to life in prison.
The case had been closed for years when producer of the podcast Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, started looking into the case in 2014, drawing millions of listeners each week – so many that it shattered Apple’s iTunes store’s record for downloads, with 76 million to date.
Syed, now 35, was on Wednesday seen for the first time in almost 16 years as he went before a judge, smiling at the rows of supporters and family members sitting inside the courtroom.
Now sporting a full bushy beard and a taqiyah – Muslim skullcap – the Baltimore-born man was dressed in a pale blue prison jumpsuit, with his legs in chains and wrists in handcuffs.
And he listened intently as Justin Brown, his defence lawyer, summarised his case for a retrial – namely that a key witness who says she saw Syed in the library at the time of the murder was never called to testify, and that telephone records that placed Syed at the burial site were inaccurate.
Ms Koenig, the creator of the podcast, was seated on the front row to hear Mr Brown spell out why he, like the reporter, felt that Syed had been let down by his then-lawyer Cristina Gutierrez. She died in 2004, having had her licence to practice law revoked – by consent - in 2001, suffering from increasingly debilitating health problems including memory and vision loss.
“Her health was failing. She was unable to manage her family life. Her business was coming unwound,” said Mr Brown.
“In her prime she was one of Baltimore’s best, but by 1999 there was a decline.”
Her failure to call Asia McClain, a former classmate who said she spotted Syed at a library the day Lee was strangled, was evidence of that decline, said Mr Brown.
“As a result of the wheels coming off the bus, the most important piece of evidence slipped through the cracks.”
He also argued that mobile phone records which the prosecution said located Syed at the park where Lee’s body was buried were unreliable, despite being seized on as a key indicator of guilt.
“There is one big problem with that,” he said. “That evidence is false. It should never have been brought to trial, and used to determine this man’s fate.”
Telephone company AT&T faxed over instructions to the police on how to read the list of phone calls they provided, stating that: "Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location.”
Yet the jury were not given AT&T’s note.
If that warning had been "properly raised at trial" by Syed's previous lawyer, Mr Brown said, "much of, if not all of, the cellular evidence would have been rendered inadmissible."
But Thiruvendran Vignarajah, the deputy attorney general, wrote that it was “preposterous” to suggest that Syed received inadequate counsel. He defended Gutierrez’s work, saying it was easy for Mr Brown to “smear the reputation of defence attorney s from the comfortable position of hindsight.”
And he said that the conviction should stand. Retired Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch has said the hearing will take three days, before he decides whether to reopen the case, having listened to members of the original defence team speak and fellow students speak on behalf of the new defence. The prosecution are calling no new witnesses.
“He was convicted by a jury of his peers, who established beyond doubt that Mr Syed strangled her with his bare hands,” said Mr Vignarajah.
“The motive – his possessiveness, as reflected in diaries; his conduct afterwards; forensic evidence linking him to the vehicle, to the burial site, was simply overwhelming.
“He was convicted because he did it. And nothing Ms Gutierrez could have said would have convinced the jury otherwise.”