The attorney for Adnan Syed, the subject of the "Serial" podcast, filed a petition Tuesday requesting that Baltimore Circuit Court reopen post-conviction proceedings so an alibi witness can testify on the convicted murderer's behalf.
The conviction of Syed, 35, has been questioned by many since "Serial," an offshoot of the "This American Life" public radio program, aired 12 podcast episodes that revisited the evidence in his case, as well as the defense Syed received in his murder trial 15 years ago.
The podcasts raised questions about the competence of his defense attorney, the accuracy of cellphone records, crime scene items that might have gone untested and an alibi witness for Syed whom his trial lawyer never approached.
Syed was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a Woodlawn High School classmate, on Jan. 13, 1999. Prosecutors had no physical evidence or eyewitness tying Syed to the killing, but the testimony of Jay Wilds, an acquaintance who said he helped Syed bury the body in Baltimore's Leakin Park, was seen as the "linchpin" of the state's case, according to Syed's petition.
After Syed's arrest, Asia McClain, a Woodlawn classmate, wrote two letters to him in jail in which she wondered how he could be a suspect in the murder when she had seen him in a public library near school on the day prosecutors believe Syed killed Lee.
Syed told his attorney at the time, M. Cristina Gutierrez, about McClain, but the lawyer did not interview her.
The Court of Special Appeals agreed in February to hear Syed's appeal of a lower court ruling that denied his request for a new trial. The court said in May that McClain should be allowed to testify so her testimony could be considered in deliberations on whether Syed deserves a new trial.
The court called on the Baltimore Circuit Court to reopen Syed's post-conviction hearings so McClain's testimony could be taken. Syed's petition Tuesday formally requests that the lower court do so.
A spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, which opposes Syed's court challenge, said state lawyers would file a response to the petition.
"The state has reviewed Mr. Syed's filing and is looking forward to the opportunity to explain why reopening the post-conviction proceedings is not appropriate under these circumstances," said David Nitkin, the attorney general's spokesman.
Syed's current attorney, C. Justin Brown, argues in the filing that McClain didn't testify in the initial hearings because she said then-prosecutor Kevin Urick dissuaded her from doing so by telling her that Syed's claims of innocence had no merit. Urick has denied that claim but has acknowledged that he did have a phone conversation with McClain.
McClain has never wavered from her story that she saw Syed in the Woodlawn branch public library in Baltimore County after school on Jan. 13, 1999. Prosecutors maintain Syed killed Lee in a nearby retail store parking lot at the same time.
"If this Court re-opens the post-conviction proceeding and McClain provides testimony consistent with her affidavits, her testimony would establish that she saw Syed between 2:20 and 2:40 at the Woodlawn Library, which directly contradicts the State's theory that Syed killed the victim between 2:15 and 2:36 in the Best Buy parking lot," the petition said.
The attorney general's office has said Syed's legal team is overstating the effect McClain's testimony could have on the case. In a previous brief filed in the case, state lawyers say McClain's alibi rules out one timeline prosecutors have used in the case but it does not rule out another equally probable timeline that fits evidence in the case.
"To be clear, the point is not that the State's asserted timeline was flawed, but only that Syed overstates the significance of Asia McClain," the state's brief said.
"Serial" was created and co-produced by former Baltimore Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig, a contributor to "This American Life." The podcast was downloaded 76 million times, becoming a worldwide phenomenon.