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Testimony turns away from alibi witness to cellphone tower data in Adnan Syed hearing

The woman who says she can provide Adnan Syed with an alibi was questioned in court today.

A woman who says she can offer an alibi for Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer whose case was the focus of the popular "Serial" podcast, brushed off suggestions Thursday from an attorney for the state that Syed had influenced her account.

Asia McClain, Syed's former Woodlawn High School classmate, testified for the second day at a hearing in which Syed's attorneys are asking that he be granted a new trial. She says she saw Syed, now 34, in January 1999 in a library at the time when prosecutors say he was killing his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee.

The defense contends that her account was wrongly ignored by Syed's original defense team and was misrepresented at a 2012 hearing in which he was denied a new trial. He is serving a life sentence.

Thursday's hearing also began to delve into a defense claim that cellphone tower evidence used to place Syed near Leakin Park, where Lee's body was found, was unreliable.

Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah first peppered McClain with questions, including whether she might be confusing the date on which she saw him. He also asked why one of her best friends had no memory of her mentioning that she had an alibi for Syed.

Vignarajah later zeroed in on a letter McClain said she wrote to Syed two days after his arrest, in which she told him she remembered seeing him at the library and wanted to help with his defense. It included phrases such as "I'll help you account for unaccounted time," prompting Vignarajah to suggest some could see the letter as indicating a willingness to help Syed with a coverup.

"I'm not responsible for what other people might interpret," McClain said.

Vignarajah said a friend of McClain's told police that Syed had sent a letter to McClain and asked her to type it up and send it back. Her letter included questions about evidence in the case.

"Are you sure you don't remember someone giving you information before you wrote the letter?" Vignarajah asked.

McClain, who teared up during the questioning, maintained that she wrote the letter without help and that her information was based on classroom gossip.

In his questions, Syed's defense attorney, C. Justin Brown, pointed out that some details of Lee's death were widely known through news reports. He asked her to reiterate her basic account: that she saw Syed for 20 minutes in a library starting around 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1999.

"Did anyone put you up to saying that?" Brown asked.

"No," McClain said.

He asked her if anyone from Syed's original defense team had ever tried to reach out to her.

"Unfortunately, no," she said.

Key to Syed's request for a new trial is that his defense attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided poor representation.

Vignarajah has been countering that Gutierrez did sufficient work, and areas that were lacking were strategic choices. Syed's defense has to prove that Gutierrez's conduct was "constitutionally deficient," not just questionable, he said.

The "Serial" podcast examined details of the case and spawned fan sites that have done the same. The courtroom was full of media and spectators, including family and supporters of Syed and Lee.

Syed's defense also says cellphone tower evidence in the case was accompanied by a fax cover sheet from AT&T that said incoming calls were not a reliable way to determine a user's location. They called a cellphone expert, Gerald Grant, who said the warning should have been heeded.

Vignarajah countered by asking Grant to provide examples of cases he'd seen in which incoming calls had been shown to be unreliable, as the cover letter said. Grant could not provide such examples.

The hearing continues Friday. It is not known whether retired Judge Martin P. Welch will issue his ruling at the conclusion of the hearing or at a later date.

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