iStock/Thinkstock(BALTIMORE) — He has spent half his life in prison for a murder some say he may not have committed.
Adnan Syed is now 35, serving a life sentence, and coming up on his 16th year behind bars. His arrest and subsequent trial didn’t make nearly as many headlines in 2000 as his story is making now, thanks to Serial, an investigative podcast that stoked fervent interest in his case for millions of avid listeners.
The podcast propelled forward some new information that could tip the scale in Syed’s favor, including the introduction of a potential alibi witness who was never asked to testify. Syed’s circuitous journey through courts, hearings and appeals has now culminated into a push for freedom, his fate, for the moment, resting in the hands of a retired Baltimore judge who will decide whether he deserves a new trial.
But family members of Hae Min Lee, Syed’s former girlfriend who was found strangled to death in Leakin Park in 1999, are convinced he is her killer.
“The events of this past week have reopened wounds few can imagine,” the family said in a statement released Sunday by the Maryland Attorney General’s office. “It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae. She stood up for what was right, regardless of popular opinion.”
Lawyers for Syed are arguing for a new trial in post-conviction proceedings that resumed Monday. His defense team, led by C. Justin Brown, is arguing that Syed’s former lawyer, the late Cristina Gutierrez, failed to provide him with effective counsel during his 2000 trial and that the cellphone tower evidence used by prosecutors to help convict him was unreliable.
“Unlike those who learn about this case on the Internet,” Lee’s family said in the statement, “we sat and watched every day of both trials — so many witnesses, so much evidence.”
Syed’s first trial ended in a mistrial, but his second trial concluded with a first-degree murder conviction, and a sentence of life plus 30 years.
Meanwhile, the potential alibi witness finally had the opportunity to raise her right hand in court last week, swearing to tell the truth about her side of the story. Asia Chapman, formerly Asia McClain, says she was with Syed at the Baltimore County public library near Woodlawn Senior High School at the time prosecutors say Syed killed Lee.
McClain says she wrote to Syed twice to offer herself as a witness, saying she was willing and able to account for 20 minutes of his time on Jan. 13, 1999, but that not a single person from the defense or the state reached out to her. Her memories of that day were brushed under a rug for the next 16 years.
“I felt it was the right thing to do. All the information needs to be on the table in the interest of telling the truth,” she testified last week to a riveted courtroom packed with reporters, supporters and the curious.
Lee’s family says McClain is supporting a criminal.
“Whatever her personal motives, we forgive her, but we hope she will not use Hae’s name in public, which hurts us when we hear it from her,” they said in the statement. “She did not know Hae, and because of Adnan she never will.”
McClain’s lawyer releasing a statement of his own Sunday, saying the purpose of her testimony was not to pick sides.
“Ms. McClain’s intentions have only ever been to say what it is she knows and how, if at all, that affects Mr. Syed’s case is not for us to determine,” her lawyer said.
Family and friends of both Syed and Lee filled the courtroom over the course of three days last week, which a notable divide between two Asian groups, both in support of justice. Syed’s Pakistani family and friends, many in hijab head coverings and kufi prayer caps sat on one side, elderly Korean family members of Lee’s on the other.
Syed’s attorneys have also raised questions about what they describe as “unreliable” cellphone records, saying his defense overlooked a critical memo from AT&T that warned of location issues associated with incoming calls. The data was used against him in 2000, helping a jury convict him in just two hours.
FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald was in the middle of a testy cross-examination when proceedings ended Friday, and was expected to continue testifying today.
Also expected to take the stand again is defense attorney David Irwin, who was called as a legal expert to say that McClain’s testimony would have been a “game changer.”
“An alibi witness is the best possible defense you can have,” he said. “The defense, Cristina Gutierrez, was on notice that Asia McClain was an alibi witness. She [was] willing to put herself on the line to tell what she believes is the truth.”
It’s unclear when retired Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch will make his decision, but it could come in the days or weeks following the conclusion of the hearing.
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