Adnan Syed was convicted in 2000 of murdering Hae Min Lee. Photo / AP
After spending 16 years in prison for the killing of his former high school girlfriend, a man at the centre of popular podcast Serial has a chance at freedom.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled Fridaythat Adnan Syed, 35,
deserved a new trial in the case that became the focus of the podcast,
which captivated millions of listeners around the world.
convicted in 2000 of murdering Hae Min Lee a year earlier and burying
her in a shallow grave in a park in northwest Baltimore. He was
sentenced to life in prison.
During a post-conviction hearing in
early February, Syed’s attorneys argued he deserved a retrial on the
grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, did not contact
Asia McClain Chapman, an alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the
Woodlawn library about the same time prosecutors say Lee was murdered.
Additionally, Syed’s current attorneys argued cell tower data linking
Syed’s phone to the burial site on the day of Lee’s murder was
misleading because it was presented to jurors without a cover sheet
warning that incoming call data was unreliable.
In Welch’s order, he disagreed that Gutierrez erred when she
failed to contact Chapman, or that prosecutors breached their duty by
withholding exculpatory evidence. But Welch did agree that Syed’s
attorney should have cross-examined a state’s expert witness about the
reliability of cell tower data that placed him near the burial site.
the extensive hearing, defense attorneys and prosecutors called
witnesses and vigorously cross-examined others. Chapman spent nearly two
days on the stand, testifying she and Syed spent about 15 minutes
chatting in the library on Jan. 13, 1999, but that despite repeated
efforts to reach Syed’s defense team at the time with an offer to be an
alibi, she was never contacted. Chapman wrote a pair of letters and sent
them to Syed in jail days after the man’s arrest, detailing their
meeting. Syed’s current attorneys, Justin Brown and Christopher Nieto,
pointed to the letters as proof of her story, which has remained largely
consistent for 16 years.
Prosecutors used one of the letters to
try to impeach Chapman’s testimony. Deputy Attorney General Thiru
Vignarajah suggested it contained information lifted directly from a
search warrant executed much later than the letter’s March 2 date,
implying Syed fed Chapman information. Additionally, Vignarajah
presented records showing that Gutierrez, as well as a team of attorneys
working on Syed’s case before she signed on, was aware of Chapman but
decided against calling her to the stand. Chapman, Vignarajah argued,
contradicted Syed’s story, one that relied on several witnesses whose
accounts ultimately bolstered the testimony of Syed’s original alibi,
Jay Wilds, a high school friend who acknowledged helping bury Lee. Wilds
made a plea deal in exchange for probation and became the state’s star
witness against Syed.
Brown also called witnesses to testify that
cell tower data ” an important piece of the state’s case against Syed ”
should have never been presented to jurors without an instruction sheet
warning that any incoming call data is inconclusive. Brown showed the
judge an affidavit from the radio frequency technician who testified at
Syed’s trial for the prosecution that said his testimony would have been
different had he seen the instruction sheet prior to taking the stand.
But prosecutors countered that the instructions didn’t pertain to any
relevant data placing Syed’s phone in Leakin Park during the time Lee
This was Syed’s second attempt at a new trial.
Welch denied the earlier post-conviction relief bid in 2014 after
determining that Gutierrez’s decision not to pursue Chapman was the
result of reasonable trial strategy, not neglect.
information came to light later. Chapman did not testify at the first
post-conviction hearing. Instead, original prosecutor Kevin Urick took
the stand, and recalled a phone conversation he’d had with Chapman in
2010. She called him after Brown had come to her home. On the stand,
Urick characterized the conversation as lasting only a few minutes, and
said Chapman decided not to come forward.
Chapman testified at
the most recent hearing that Urick misled her and mischaracterized their
conversation. She said she didn’t learn of Urick’s statements until she
listened to Serial. Afterward, Chapman reached out to Brown and offered to testify.
podcast, which debuted in the winter of 2014, attracted millions of
listeners and shattered records for the number of times a podcast has
been streamed and downloaded. The loyal army of listeners often acted as
armchair detectives, uncovering new evidence and raising new questions
about the case.