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'Serial' subject Adnan Syed has day in court, makes case for new trial

'Serial' podcast subject Adnan Syed is in a Baltimore court house Wednesday, his attorney seeking a new trial.

For more than a decade, Asia McClain was confident that she had seen Adnan Syed at a Woodlawn library during the time when prosecutors said he had killed his former girlfriend.

Defense attorneys never asked about her account, she said, and a prosecutor later dismissed the potential alibi as irrelevant. But before a packed courtroom on Wednesday, McClain described how a popular podcast about the case had persuaded her that she needed to speak up.

"In order for justice to be served, all information has to be out on the table," McClain testified in Baltimore Circuit Court.

It was the first day of a three-day hearing. Syed's attorneys argued Wednesday that he should receive a new trial in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee. The hearing was the first since the "Serial" podcast raised questions about Syed's conviction.

A hush fell over the courtroom full of supporters, spectators and news media as Syed, 34, was escorted in, shackled at the hands and feet.

Syed's attorneys say McClain's account should not have been dismissed. They say her testimony and newly scrutinized cellphone tower evidence provide grounds for a new trial.

Attorneys for the state urged retired Judge Martin P. Welch to deny the request. Deputy Maryland Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said Syed received sufficient representation during his trial in 2000 and that any decision by his attorneys not to follow up on McClain's account then was strategic.

"Mr. Syed was convicted on the basis of overwhelming evidence," Vignarajah said. "Mr. Syed was convicted because he did it, and the state proved it."

A jury convicted Syed of kidnapping and strangling the 18-year-old Lee, and he was sentenced to life in prison. No physical evidence tied Syed to the crime, but a witness testified that he helped Syed bury her body.

Lee's family did not participate in the "Serial" podcast and has not spoken out in any of the articles, spinoff podcasts and websites that followed. After the hearing concluded for the day, Vignarajah read a statement from the family from the courthouse steps, in which they said the new proceedings were forcing them to "relive a nightmare we thought was behind us."

"We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000, and we look forward to bringing this chapter to an end so we can celebrate the memory of Hae instead of celebrating the man who killed her," the family said.

The family said Lee was the "true victim."

Much of the testimony Wednesday centered on the effectiveness of M. Cristina Gutierrez, Syed's trial attorney. Gutierrez died in 2004.

Two former associates testified that Gutierrez had begun to fall apart physically and mentally, and was no longer the same top attorney when she took on Syed's case.

Welch dismissed arguments to reopen Syed's case in 2012, when the defense raised questions about Gutierrez's work and introduced McClain's account as an alibi.

Kevin Urick, a prosecutor in Syed's case, testified at the 2012 hearing that McClain had told him she had claimed in an affidavit that she had seen Syed at the library on the day of Lee's killing "because she was getting pressure" from Syed's family.

McClain did not testify then, and now says that Urick misrepresented the case to her — and misrepresented her position to the court.

"He flat out said, 'He killed that girl,'" McClain testified Wednesday. She said Urick told her that defense attorneys were trying to game the system and that he was confident of Syed's guilt.

Witnesses in the hearing have been sequestered and directed not to speak to reporters. Urick told The Baltimore Sun last year that he never dissuaded McClain from testifying. He did say he told her that the evidence was "strong" against Syed.

Urick, now a prosecutor in Cecil County, is listed as a potential state witness in the current hearing.

McClain first raised the potential alibi immediately after Syed's arrest in 1999. She testified that she was stuck at the Woodlawn library on Jan. 13 waiting for her boyfriend and struck up a conversation with Syed.

He was "completely normal," she said.

McClain wrote a letter to Syed after his arrest, offering to help him if he thought the information would be useful in mounting a defense. She wrote a second letter a day later, she said, but never heard from Syed's defense.

Vignarajah provided notes from Gutierrez's case file. He had obtained them in recent weeks by arguing that the contents had been shared widely with the public through the "Serial" podcast, which was downloaded millions of times.

The files, he said, showed Gutierrez dividing up tasks, assigning clerks and attorneys to pursue them, and making strategic decisions about what to pursue and what to withhold.

Gutierrez determined that the "pursuit of Ms. McClain would not be a worthwhile endeavor," Vignarajah said, countering the contention that Gutierrez was not of sound mind.

Vignarajah said McClain's account did not mesh with Syed's own account to police of his movements that day, and raised a number of "warning signs and red flags" that Gutierrez could reasonably have chosen to shy away from.

He told Welch that the defense must prove not only that Gutierrez made questionable decisions in defending Syed, but was "constitutionally deficient" and "below the standard of conduct."

McClain sat just feet from Syed, whom she described as a former acquaintance. By the time his trial started a year after his arrest, she said, she was concentrating on college and did not follow the proceedings.

Syed has been incarcerated for 16 years. He entered the courtroom wearing a blue prison top, jeans, work boots, and a round gray-and-white skullcap, or topi.

McClain, meanwhile, has moved to Washington state, where she said she is married with two children, and expecting a third.

McClain described participating in the "Serial" podcast unwittingly. She said she assumed it was a sparsely followed Internet radio show. But her account became a crucial chapter in the 12-episode series, and she "binge-listened" to the program.

Before "Serial," "I didn't think I was very important at all," McClain testified. "I came to find out, as [creator] Sarah [Koenig] said, maybe it is important."

Koenig, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who produced and narrated "Serial," also attended the hearing.

McClain kept notes of her conversation with Urick. With the help of defense attorneys, she pulled phone records that showed that she and Urick spoke for more than 30 minutes, contrasting with Urick's contention in 2012 that it was a brief discussion.

Vignarajah said in his opening remarks that the trial prosecutors presented overwhelming evidence, including forensics and evidence that pointed to a motive of Syed being possessive of Lee.

In addition to McClain, Syed's attorneys said they would raise questions about cellphone evidence that linked Syed to the area where Lee was buried. The state plans to counter with an FBI cellphone expert.

It is not known whether Welch will issue his ruling at the conclusion of the hearing or at a later date.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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