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State appeals ruling granting new trial to Adnan Syed

The Maryland attorney general's office formally appealed Monday a ruling that overturned the conviction of "Serial" podcast subject Adnan Syed, contending that a judge wrongly allowed new arguments over cellphone evidence.

The attorney general's office, which has been fighting Syed's appeal, said his latest post-conviction hearing was convened to hear from an alibi witness who said she was with Syed at a time when prosecutors alleged he was killing Hae Min Lee, a former girlfriend.

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But Judge Martin P. Welch also allowed Syed's attorneys to introduce a fax cover sheet that accompanied Syed's cellphone tower records, which they said raised questions about the reliability of the location data. Welch rejected Asia McClain's alibi testimony, but ordered a new trial for Syed based on the cellphone records.

The attorney general's office contends that that was wrong. "Maryland's courts have imposed few limits on what qualifies as in the 'interests of justice,' but limits remain," Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah wrote.

Syed's lead defense attorney declined to respond in detail Tuesday to the state's arguments.

"We think Judge Welch reached the correct decision in granting Syed a new trial," C. Justin Brown said in a statement. "We will respond to the state's arguments at the appropriate time."

Syed was serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2000 of murder and kidnapping in Lee's killing the year before, and his case gained worldwide attention after being featured in the "Serial" podcast, which raised questions about the investigation and his trial. It also spurred an offshoot podcast called "Undisclosed," whose co-host unearthed the cell tower evidence.

While Welch's ruling ordered a new trial in the closely watched case, an appeal could delay that for months — or dash the possibility if the state is successful. Syed remains incarcerated and charged with murder.

Brown recently enlisted a new team of defense attorneys in anticipation of a retrial, and has floated the idea of trying to free Syed on bail as legal jockeying continues.

In Monday's appeal, Vignarajah argued that post-conviction hearings cannot be held when there has been "no new evidence, no change in law, no material link to the original justification for remand, and no reason why the claim could not have been raised at numerous prior proceedings."

Vignarajah also argues that Syed's original trial counsel was not ineffective, as Syed's current attorneys contend, and said there remains a dispute about the cellphone evidence.

"There is no consensus among experts in the forensic community that Syed's interpretation of the fax cover sheet is valid," Vignarajah wrote.

At hearings this year, the cellphone technician who testified in Syed's trial said the cover sheet caused him to have concerns about his testimony, while an FBI cellphone expert said the analysis of the cell records would stand today.

If the court rejects arguments about the appropriateness of the new cellphone tower evidence, Vignarajah said Syed should still be denied a new trial "because the prosecution presented to a jury of his peers overwhelming evidence of him strangling and burying in a shallow grave his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee."

The state's appeal also makes reference to testimony from two of McClain's classmates, referred to only as sisters, who allegedly told the state that McClain told them she was going to lie to help Syed avoid a conviction.

McClain declined to comment about the state allegation but posted on Twitter: "I guess this is what happens when u expose the wrong doings of state prosecutors? They come for u even when they don't need to?"

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