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Adnan Syed, of 'Serial,' returns to court Wednesday

Sixteen years after his murder conviction, Serial subject Adnan Syed returns to court Wednesday.

Sixteen years after he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and one year after his case was re-examined through the wildly popular podcast "Serial," Adnan Syed will return to court Wednesday for his latest attempt to get a new trial.

Syed, 35, whose last request for a new trial was denied in 2012 in a sparsely attended hearing, now will appear in what is expected to be a packed downtown Baltimore courtroom with family members, supporters and representatives from more than 40 local and national media outlets.

Syed's attorney, C. Justin Brown, will ask retired Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch for a retrial, presenting an alibi witness and raising questions about cellphone evidence that linked Syed to the area where his Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee was buried.

"We are confident that when the court hears all of the evidence it will do the right thing: Grant Adnan Syed a new trial," Brown said Tuesday.

The attorney general's office is arguing against the request and has called the claims "meritless" and "inconsequential theater and not in the interest of justice."

Recent court filings show that the attorney general's office plans to call high-profile defense attorney William R. "Billy" Martin as an expert who will rebut Syed's claims that he received ineffective counsel when his trial attorney did not call an alibi witness. They also plan to call an FBI special agent — who testified at the Boston Marathon bombing case — to rebut the challenges about cellphone evidence.

The state may also call the original prosecutor, Kevin Urick, as well as the original homicide detectives and members of Syed's defense team. Syed's original attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, died in 2004.

Steven M. Klepper, a Maryland appellate attorney who said he followed "Serial" closely, said he believes there is a "significant" chance of a new trial.

"Not many ineffective-assistance claims get this worked up, this fully fleshed out," he said. "Adnan has excellent counsel and a lot of great facts on his side."

But Klepper said those who have meticulously followed the case might find the proceedings lacking. Fans of the podcast, which has been downloaded millions of times, have delved into the case in excruciating detail, looking for inconsistencies and other problems.

Brown will only be able to make limited arguments in court, he said.

"This [hearing] is not going to reach every bit of potential defense arguments," Klepper said.

Yusef Syed, the defendant's brother, said his family is nervous but excited for the new hearing.

"The last time we were there, our hearts dropped. We thought it was over," he said. "I could never imagine that we could've gotten this far."

Welch will preside over the three-day appeal hearing. When he granted the hearing last November, he said it would "be in the interests of justice."

In the 2000 trial, prosecutors used the testimony of Jay Wilds, an acquaintance who said he helped Syed bury Lee's body in Baltimore's Leakin Park, and phone records they said tied Syed to the area. A jury found Syed guilty of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment.

After Syed's arrest, Asia McClain, another Woodlawn High School classmate, wrote him letters in jail, saying she had seen him in a library on the day Lee was killed.

McClain told The Baltimore Sun last year that she has "no doubt" about when and where she saw Syed. She added that she did not want to speculate on whether he is guilty or innocent.

"I know that across offices and homes in America, and beyond, people have been discussing Adnan's guilt or innocence," she said in an emailed response to questions. "I can only tell you what it is I know. Whether this information means that Adnan is innocent, or deserves a new trial, is a decision for others to make."

Urick, the original prosecutor, testified at Syed's 2012 post-conviction hearing that McClain told him she had written the affidavit "because she was getting pressure" from Syed's family.

But McClain said she didn't testify in the post-conviction hearing because Urick "discussed the evidence of the case in a manner that seemed designed to get me to think Syed was guilty and that I should not bother participating in the case."

Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, who attended Woodlawn High School a few years ahead of Syed and Lee and is handling the case for the state, wrote that allegations that Urick improperly dissuaded McClain from testifying are "preposterous."

Brown has also presented a memo that cellular carrier AT&T included with the cell tower data that warned about the data's reliability regrading incoming calls.

"Outgoing calls only are reliable for location status," the AT&T memo read. "Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information for location."

Had that warning been raised at Syed's trial, "much of, if not all of, the cellular evidence would have been rendered inadmissible," Brown contended.

Yusef Syed said he was disappointed but not surprised that the state is fighting the case. But, he said, "it's impossible for him to stay in prison after everything we've [found]."

The state's expert witnesses will be Martin, the defense attorney, and FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald. Martin's clients have included NFL quarterback Michael Vick, former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, and former Atlanta Mayor William "Bill" Campbell. The Washington Post called him "Washington's go-to lawyer when you're in trouble. Real trouble."

It's been a long road for Syed, whose latest request for a new trial was heard by the Court of Special Appeals last year after initially being rejected by a lower court. The court ruled in May that McClain should be allowed to testify so that her statements could be weighed in deciding whether Syed deserves a new trial.

"Serial" raised questions about whether prosecutors were overzealous and Syed's defense attorney ineffective. Sarah Koenig, the former Sun reporter who created the podcast, said in the last episode of the podcast that the evidence was "not enough, to me, to send anyone to prison for life."

Koenig declined to comment for this article. The second season of "Serial" began late last year, focusing on the case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Rabia Chaudry, a Syed family friend who brought Syed's case to Koenig's attention, was set to hold an informational meeting and prayer Tuesday night in the gym of the Dar Al Taqwa mosque in Ellicott City.

Chaudry tweeted last week that she is confident in Syed's chances.

Brown, she wrote, "will win this."

Court officials said 40 media outlets have indicated they will attend the hearing. It will be held in the same courtroom as the recent trial of Baltimore Police Officer William Porter for the death of Freddie Gray. The court said there will be limited media seating and an overflow room, as at the Porter trial.

It's not known whether Welch will issue his ruling at the conclusion of the three-day hearing or at a later date.

Mary Julian Curet, 25, who listened to "Serial" and its spinoff podcast "Undisclosed," works near the downtown courthouse and plans to attend. She said she feels "particularly strong about the lack of follow-up done by Adnan's attorney initially" and said the case has "shed some light on potential flaws in the justice system."

Margaret Williams of Alexandria, Va., also plans to attend.

"Many people, like myself, feel an obligation to seek the truth and find closure," she said. "Citizens are vulnerable, fragile. This case has helped open the door to system reform."

Shawn Smallwood plans to attend out of curiosity. He was a student at Woodlawn High when the killing occurred and remembers how it affected the community.

But he isn't pulling for Syed.

"The story hasn't changed. Adnan killed Hae Lee," Smallwood said. "His lawyers are doing what lawyers are supposed to do. Guys in jail are doing what guys in jail do: say they didn't do it."

An earlier version misspelled Yusef Syed's name. The Sun regrets the error.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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