BALTIMORE — A retired Baltimore judge who will determine whether a man convicted of a killing at the center of popular podcast "Serial" deserves a new trial said the five-day post-conviction hearing that concluded Tuesday garnered more attention than any other proceeding he'd seen in the state.
That judge, Martin Welch, will decide whether Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison, will be retried. Syed's case became the focus of the first season of "Serial," a podcast that was streamed and downloaded millions of times and garnered a cult following that inspired armchair detectives all over the world to delve into the details of the case, unearthing new theories and evidence.
Defense attorney Justin Brown argued Tuesday that evidence brought to light by "Serial" and presented in court shows that Adnan Syed had an unfair trial. Brown cited numerous issues raised by the podcast, such as a key alibi witness who was never called and some cellphone data misrepresented as reliably linking his client to the crime scene.
"We proved our case. We did exactly what we said we would. I believe we met our burden and that Mr. Syed deserves a new trial," Brown said.
Brown said in a news conference after closing arguments Tuesday that the Syed post-conviction hearing "might have been the first-ever open-source case where all the materials of the case were out there, so people were investigating this case all over the country."
"I had thousands of investigators working for me, and that produced information we otherwise would not have had, and that helped us get to where we are right now," he said.
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah countered that the evidence remains "overwhelming" that Syed was properly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing Lee and burying her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore.
"This is not a popular position, but the state's role is to do justice," the prosecutor said.
He acknowledged the interest generated by "Serial," a public radio podcast that extensively re-examined the long-closed case, but told the judge Syed had a "passionate, vigorous defense" at trial and was convicted not because of ineffective counsel or faulty evidence, but because "he did it."
Brown said cell tower data linking Syed to Lee's burial site was misleading because prosecutors presented it without a cover sheet warning that the information about incoming calls was unreliable.
Moreover, Brown said Syed's trial lawyer, Christina Gutierrez, was ineffective because she didn't contact Asia McClain, now Asia Chapman, who said Syed was with her at a public library during the time Lee was killed. She took the stand this time, vouched for Syed, and accused a prosecutor of twisting her words years ago to keep her away.
"A mistake was made not to talk to an alibi witness who could have turned this trial around," Brown later told the judge, calling her "earnest," ''compelling" and "extremely credible."
"If Mr. Syed was with Ms. McClain at the library on Jan. 12, 1999, he didn't kill Hae Min Lee. He couldn't have," Brown concluded.
The prosecutor countered that a pair of letters Chapman sent to Syed shortly after his arrest contained information that must have been funneled to her in a failed effort to construct Syed's alibi. He said records show Gutierrez had in fact investigated her, and determined that "Asia McClain wasn't a weapon for the defense; she was a potential weakness." Vignarajah also presented to the judge a document showing that Syed's defense attorneys interviewed a security officer at the Woodlawn Public Library three days after Syed's arrest, proving that his defense team was pursuing the possible library alibi.
"I think Asia McClain was a very charming witness. But what Asia McClain presented in 1999 were two letters that were at best confusing and at worst, doctored. And a defense attorney like Cristina Gutierrez would have seen right through them," Vignarajah said.