Attorneys argue case of 'Serial' subject Adnan Syed in Maryland's highest court

With Adnan Syed’s family and friends in the courtroom, attorneys argued before Maryland’s highest court Thursday about whether his murder conviction — thrown out by a lower court — should be reinstated.

Syed was convicted in 2000 of killing his former girlfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate, Hae Min Lee, but the case drew renewed attention in 2014 through the popular “Serial” podcast, which raised questions about why his attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, did not call a potential alibi witness. Gutierrez died in 2004.

Although Syed, still incarcerated, was not in attendance at the Court of Appeals in Annapolis, the hearing drew intense interest. The courtroom was packed, and more than 4,000 people watched a live stream of the proceedings.

The attorneys’ arguments focused on whether Gutierrez erred in not contacting Syed’s friend Asia McClain, who claimed she and two other people had seen Syed in the Woodlawn public library, which also had a security camera, at the time of the killing.

Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy Maryland attorney general who argued on behalf of the state, said public records didn’t indicate why Gutierrez chose not to investigate McClain’s claim. He argued that defense strategy may have been one reason: Syed had said nothing to police about going to the library, so McClain’s story would not have been consistent with his, Vignarajah said.

Furthermore, Vignarajah argued, if Syed’s conviction was vacated, it would create a precedent that would require any defense attorney to contact any potential witness, regardless of their merits.

He argued that the court must presume the reasonableness of Gutierrez’s actions in the absence of an explanation.

Cate Stetson, Syed’s appellate counsel, argued that Syed had specifically asked Gutierrez to follow up on McClain’s claim, and that she failed her client by not calling McClain — now McClain Chapman.

No explanation was necessary, Stetson argued, as to why the lawyer declined to make the call; McClain claimed to have two other witnesses, and Gutierrez had a responsibility to investigate their claims, she said.

“The reasons [Gutierrez] might’ve offered don’t matter,” Stetson said. “Was it reasonable not to pick up the phone and make a call?”

Syed’s mother, Shamim Rahman, teared up outside the courthouse while discussing her son’s case with reporters. Rahman said she had talked Wednesday with her son, who is still serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison, and that he has faith in his defense team.

“He’s hopeful,” she said. “He’s in good hands.”

Rabia Chaudry, a family friend and attorney who brought the case to the attention of “Serial” podcast creator Sarah Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, said Syed “feels like there’s a chance he’ll come home.”

C. Justin Brown, another attorney for Syed, said he did not know when the high court might rule on whether to reinstate the now-38-year-old’s conviction, but Chaudry said the family expects a ruling by August.

“We’ve won the last two appeals,” Chaudry said. “His conviction has been thrown out twice, and the state keeps throwing taxpayer dollars away by appealing the wins, and so we look forward to winning this last appeal.”

Vignarajah declined to comment after the hearing.

From the archives: 'Serial' brings healing to Syed family »

Lee disappeared on Jan. 13, 1999, and her body was found almost a month later buried in the city’s Leakin Park.

Her family could not be reached for comment Thursday, though they expressed frustration when Syed was first granted a new trial in 2016.

“We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve,” the family said in a statement at the time. “We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”

Syed was convicted of the murder in a 2000 trial, but he appealed the verdict, also questioning the reliability of cellphone evidence used to place him at the spot where Lee's body was found.

In 2016, two years after “Serial” became an international hit podcast, a Baltimore judge vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial for him. Judge Martin Welch, who had denied Syed’s previous request for a new court date, said the original legal team should have raised more questions about the reliability of cellphone tower evidence.

The state appealed Welch’s ruling to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Syed's attorneys then filed a separate conditional appeal, asking the court to look at the alibi issue.

The Court of Special Appeals rejected the argument that the mishandling of cellphone tower evidence was grounds for a new trial, as the lower court had found. But it upheld the lower court ruling nonetheless, accepting the argument that Syed’s defense should have called McClain Chapman to the stand as an alibi witness, something the lower court had not accepted.

The state appealed that decision, too, and in July the state’s highest court agreed to consider whether to reinstate Syed’s conviction.

If the Court of Appeals declines to do so, Brown said, his team is ready to retry the nearly 20-year-old case.

“We would welcome that,” he said after the hearing Thursday.

Brown appeared confident in Stetson’s arguments before the court. He greeted Rahman and Chaudry outside the courtroom before boarding the elevator.

“Not bad, huh?” he said. They agreed.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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