BALTIMORE – Two days after they should have ended, post-conviction proceedings for Adnan Syed came to a close earlier this week with no decision in sight.
Although hearings were scheduled to end Friday, an extensive list of witnesses kept court in session until Tuesday. It is uncertain how long retired Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Martin Welch will wait before issuing a ruling in this case.
Terri Charles, deputy director of the Maryland Judiciary’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, said the decision could come in a couple weeks or months. At the end of proceedings, Welch thanked everyone and said he would issue a written opinion after looking through all of the evidence presented.
Popularized by the podcast Serial, the case of Syed, now 34, has gained much media attention. In 2000, he was convicted of the 1999 murder of fellow Woodlawn High School student and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for first degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and robbery.
A key, unused alibi in Syed’s original trial and differing interpretations of cell phone tower records were the principal grounds for the appeal.
Legal expert David Irwin testified that the defense, led by the late Cristina Gutierrez, should have investigated the unused alibi deeper than it did.
“My opinion is, it was a game-changer,” he said. “[The testimony] would’ve been incredibly important in the outcome of the case.”
The alibi came from Asia Chapman, whose maiden name is McClain and is referred to that way in Serial, was a senior in high school when she sent two letters to classmate Syed days after he was arrested. In the letters, she offered to account for some time on the date of Lee’s disappearance that Syed couldn’t remember – including the time coroners previously determined was Lee’s time of death.
Chapman’s testimony remained consistent over the years: at around 2:20 p.m. on January 13, 1999, Chapman said Syed joined her in the Woodlawn Public Library, where they talked for about 20 minutes about his recent break-up with Lee. Chapman said she then left with her boyfriend.
“Sometimes, high school boys are immature, so [Syed] being real mature made it memorable,” Chapman said, referring to Syed’s discussion of the break-up. “Just how cool he was about it. How nonchalant, you could say. Mature.”
She also said how she didn’t realize how important she was to the case until journalist Sarah Koenig created Serial in 2014.
Advancements in technology also allowed experts to look at the cell tower records the state used in the original trial in a new light. Prosecutors relied on those records in 2000, alleging two incoming calls placed Syed in Leakin Park, where Lee’s body was later found in a shallow grave.
One expert said his predecessor unknowingly had used unreliable methods to interpret the records. The state’s expert, however, concurred with the original expert.
Both Lee’s and Syed’s families showed support in the courtroom. Lee’s relatives easily constituted a third of the courtroom on Feb. 4, the morning after the family released its first statement since Lee’s body was found in February 1999.
“The immediate family members have decided not to attend this hearing,” the Lee family statement read. “But we are grateful to all the people who are there and will be there to support us and to give Hae a voice. She is the true victim.”
The family thanked the state for “standing up for us and continuing to seek justice” and said that Syed’s conviction was the right decision.
Lee’s family and the prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, also released unexpected statements Saturday, in the middle of the hearing’s weekend recess, over a conference call closed to most media outlets. Christian Schaffer from Baltimore’s local ABC news channel tweeted out the statements.
“The testimony and records that are already in evidence reveal that Syed received a tenacious and dogged defense in 1999 and 2000 by a team of some of Maryland’s best lawyers,” Vignarajah said. “To think there was an oops or an oversight back then, let alone a failure of constitutional dimension, is just not consistent with what we are now seeing in the defense’s file.”
The “tenacious and dogged defense” refers to Gutierrez, whom the current defense referred to as being in declining health during the first Syed trial.
According to an investigator hired by defense attorney C. Justin Brown to talk with many of the 83 people with potential alibis that Gutierrez’s team put together, only four were contacted at all by someone on the defense and none of them were asked to be an alibi witness.
Included on the list were Patricia Jessamy, the state’s attorney at the time, and prosecutor Kevin Urick; not on the list was Chapman.
“We proved our case. We did exactly what we said we would,” Brown said in his closing statement. “I believe we met our burden and that Mr. Syed deserves a new trial.”