BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Maryland’s highest court heard arguments about whether to reinstate the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, whose case was featured in the “Serial” podcast.
A lower court vacated Syed’s 2000 conviction two years ago and the state has been fighting the decision ever since.
“My son has been dealing with this for 20 years. I hope this will be the last one,” Syed’s mother Shamim Rahman told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren as she fought back tears. “My son is hopeful. He called me yesterday… It’s been very tough on us.”
A key issue is whether Syed’s trial attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, provided a defense that was so inadequate, it violated her client’s Constitutional rights. Syed’s current lawyers say she ignored a key alibi witness, Asia McClain Chapman.
Chapman claims she was with Syed at the time police believe he killed his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
Lee and Syed were classmates at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County at the time. Authorities found her body dumped in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.
McClain says Syed was at Woodlawn’s public library with her, her boyfriend, and another friend at the time the medical examiner pinpointed as when Lee died.
She told Syed’s defense that information, but Gutierrez never questioned her or even called her on the phone.
Gutierrez also never checked the surveillance cameras at the library to see if they corroborated McClain’s alibi.
Syed’s defense attorney Cate Stetson told justices in Maryland’s Court of Appeals Thursday that Syed asked Gutierrez to contact McClain before the trial and she “lied” about having done so and told him “nothing came of it.”
After the guilty verdict, Syed—having received a sworn affidavit from McClain that the two were together when the murder happened—asked Gutierrez again whether she ever contacted McClain.
He says Gutierrez then admitted she had not and told him there was nothing that could be done about it.
“An alibi witness is the best defense you can have,” Stetson told the court. “It wasn’t reasonable.”
Justin Brown, another of Syed’s lawyers, told Hellgren, “We know there was an alibi witness. That witness wanted to talk to Adnan’s lawyer. She made herself available. She provided her phone number, and we also know that she was never contacted. I’ve been litigating this case now for 10 years. It all comes down to these simple facts—among others—that we need a new trial.”
Thiru Vignarajah, a private attorney, previously worked for the state and handled Thursday’s appeal argument as a Special Assistant Attorney General. He told the court Gutierrez death makes it impossible to know whether the failure to call McClain was part of her strategy.
Vignarajah said there were signs McClain may not have been credible and her story was “inconsistent” with Syed’s.
Vignarajah questioned why Syed never told authorities he was at the library.
“There is a silent record on why Gutierrez did not contact her,” Vignarajah said.
He believes a ruling against the state could set a precedent where defense attorneys have to question every witness, even those they feel could harm their case.
Lee’s family was not at the Court of Appeals for the arguments. They previously stated they want Syed’s conviction to stand, believing justice was done.
“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 2016 statement.
“We remain thankful to the many, many people who have expressed their support for us, and to the State for standing by the true victims and for giving Hae Min Lee a voice.”
More than 175 million people have downloaded “Serial,” making it the most popular podcast in the world. Several personally watched the court proceedings while thousands of others streamed them online.
Rabia Chaudry, a family friend who first brought Syed’s case to the attention of the podcast’s creators, said she has faith he will eventually be free.
“A few years ago, Adnan thought he had to come to terms with dying in prison. Now, there’s a chance he could come back home. He feels good. We all feel good. I think he’ll be home in the next year,“ Chaudry said.
But those waiting on the outcome will need patience. It could be months before the Court of Appeals issues a ruling. Chaudry thinks it will happen before August 2019.
If the ruling does go against the prosecution, they could appeal it to the U. S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Syed remains in prison. He did not physically attend the court proceedings, and according to Chaudry, was not allowed to watch them.
“The state keeps throwing tax dollars away by appealing the case. We look forward to winning this appeal,“ she said.
You can watch the archived proceedings here. https://courts.state.md.us/sites/default/files/import/coappeals/media/2018/coa20181129caseno24.mp4