Appeals judges focus on alibi witness in hearing arguments on whether 'Serial' subject should receive a new trial

A three-judge state appeals panel focused Thursday on a possible alibi witness as they heard arguments over whether Adnan Syed — who is serving a life sentence for murder — should receive a new trial.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals judges questioned attorneys for Syed and the state attorney general's office about what weight they should give to Asia McClain Chapman. Chapman claimed to have seen Syed at the Woodlawn library when prosecutors said 18-year-old Hae Min Lee was killed in 1999.

She was not called to testify at Syed's 2000 trial. 

The state is appealing a lower court judge's ruling last year that vacated Syed's conviction and ordered a new trial. Syed's attorneys then filed a separate conditional appeal, asking the court to look at the alibi issue.

The court did not rule Thursday. It will issue a written opinion at a later, undetermined date, and that ruling could then be appealed to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

"How can you possibly evaluate an alibi witness without speaking to her?" Chief Judge Patrick L. Woodward asked during the state's presentation by Thiru Vignarajah, a special assistant attorney general.

Vignarajah said Syed's trial attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, worked to present an alibi for Syed's defense, which included establishing his routine of going to "school, track and mosque."

He said Gutierrez also spoke to witnesses who gave conflicting information, none of which pointed to Syed being in the library the day Lee was killed.

The judges asked Syed's current attorney, C. Justin Brown, whether there was any case law that would establish that Gutierrez provided ineffective counsel to Syed because she did not speak to McClain. 

Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff asked Brown whether it is a defense attorney's responsibility to speak to any possible alibi witness — to which Brown said yes.

 

Brown said there's no more "powerful defense" than an alibi. 

No witnesses were called during Thursday's hearing, and Syed, 36, who is at a Western Maryland prison, was not present.

Syed's case attracted international attention in 2014 after he became the subject of "Serial," a podcast that was downloaded millions of times, drawing legions of devoted fans who scrutinized the case online.

Syed was granted a post-conviction hearing in February 2016, during which his new attorneys argued that his original counsel had failed to call an alibi witness. They also questioned the reliability of cellphone evidence used to place Syed at the spot where Lee's body was found.

Four months later, retired Judge Martin Welch, who had denied Syed's previous request for a new trial, vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial.

The judge said questions about the cellphone tower evidence should have been raised by Syed's original team.

During the post-conviction hearing, Syed's defense team introduced a document from AT&T in which the phone company raised questions about the reliability of technology at that time to locate a cellphone.

A cellphone technician who testified for the state in the 2000 trial submitted an affidavit saying he was unfamiliar with the AT&T document and that it could have changed his testimony.

Syed's mother, Shamim Rahman, attended Thursday's hearing, along with Rabia Chaudry, a family friend.

Chaudry said she spoke to Syed earlier in the day and that he was in "good spirits."

She said the state is simply "wasting taxpayer dollars" to fight against a new trial.

"We're hoping for a favorable decision," she said. 

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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