iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Adnan Syed, a convicted killer who gained international fame from the podcast “Serial,” is getting a new trial after spending 17 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit.
A retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge issued his ruling Thursday after reviewing new evidence, including the testimony from an alibi witness that was presented during a second post-conviction hearing earlier this year. Syed was convicted of killing his former high school classmate Hae Min Lee. Lee was found strangled in Leakin Park in 1999. The pair had dated.
During a press conference Thursday, Syed’s attorney Justin Brown said his next goal is to get Syed out of prison.
“The conviction is vacated, so the conviction is erased, it’s gone. As of this day he’s not convicted anymore,” Brown said. “One of the first things we’re going to be looking at is whether we can get him out on bail,” but that it’s up to the state whether they are going to appeal the judge’s ruling or go forward with a new trial.
Late Thursday evening, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General released a statement, confirming they will continue to seek justice in the murder of Lee.
“The court ruled in the State’s favor on a number of issues, but there does appear to be at least one ground that will need to be resolved by the appellate courts The State’s responsibility remains to pursue justice, and to defend what it believes is a valid conviction,” the statement said.
Syed’s lawyers, Brown and Christopher Nieto, called seven witness during the hearing earlier this year. They argued for a new trial for Syed on two points: Asia McClain Chapman, an alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the Woodlawn Public Library at the same time the state says he killed Lee was never sought out for her testimony in Syed’s 2000 trial, and cellphone location data that was deemed “unreliable” by AT&T that was used against him during his trial, pinpointing him near the wooded area where Lee was buried.
Both of these issues, Syed’s lawyers argued, are due to “failures” of Syed’s 2000 trial lawyer Cristina Gutierrez.
Judge Martin Welch in his issued opinion wrote that he found Syed’s trial attorney “rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state’s expert regarding the reliability of cell tower location evidence,” according to court documents obtained by ABC News. But on the issue of failing to contact McClain, the judge found that Syed’s lawyer’s performance “fell below the standard of reasonable professional judgement,” but that this error did not prejudice Syed’s defense.
Welch wrote that “trial counsel’s failure to investigate McClain’s alibi did not prejudice the defense because the crux of the State’s case did not rest on the time of the murder,” adding later, “The potential alibi witness, however, would not have undermined the crux of the State’s case: that Petitioner buried the victim’s body in Leakin Park at approximately 7 p.m. on January 13, 1999,” the documents read.
Chapman tweeted on Thursday, “Wow…I’m speechless. New Baby, New Trial.” Chapman, who was pregnant when she testified during the post-conviction relief hearing in February of this year, gave birth Wednesday.
Brown celebrated the judge’s decision Thursday afternoon, saying “I’m feeling pretty confident right now. This was the biggest hurdle. It’s really hard to get a new trial.”
When asked why Gutierrez was ineffective during cross examination of the cell evidence, Brown said: “She is deceased right now. We can’t ask her. There’s no explanation for not cross-examining the cell tower expert.”
Syed’s best friend, 35-year-old Saad Chaudry, said he’s “feeling good” about the judge’s decision.
“It’s amazing. And I mean the timing is just awesome that it’s this month during the month of Ramadan, so many prayers from all over the world,” the businessman said.
Chaudry added that “hope has been restored” and that he thinks his friend is “appreciative” of Thursday’s outcome, calling it “balanced and fair.”
In the state’s closing arguments earlier this year, Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiruvendran Vignarajah called Gutierrez a “meticulous” and “tenacious” lawyer, saying she did everything she could do to “vigorously advocate” for Syed, “pouring every ounce of her great talent” into defending him.
“To have her name smeared as it is, as a vehicle to make this case … it is not fair,” Vignarajah said.
The state called only two witnesses of its own to testify against Syed: a former Woodlawn Public Library security guard, and FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald, who corroborated the testimony of a cellphone expert who placed Syed at the scene of the burial.
The security guard was called to verify that there were not security cameras in the library. However during testimony he said “it’s possible” there were.
Perhaps the most notable part of the hearing was when Brown called McClain (now Campbell) to testify as the alibi witness or “missing piece of the puzzle.”
McClain testified that she was with Syed at the time of the killing, but she says she didn’t call the police initially to divulge her story because of fear.
“I started to call the police and then I chickened out. I think I hung up ’cause I got scared.”
She didn’t make herself known to Gutierrez, but she wrote letters to Syed. Syed told Gutierrez, but she didn’t pursue the angle.
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