Saturday, February 13, 2016

Original defense for Serial's Adnan Syed was 'crippled' by omission of witness who could have provided an alibi for him

The original defense of Adnan Syed, the convicted killer at the center of popular podcast Serial, was crippled by the omission of an alibi witness, it was argued in court on Friday.

Asia McClain, now known as Asia Chapman, would have been 'critical' to Syed's first trial if she had been contacted by his original attorney, David Irwin, a legal expert for the defense, said.

Syed was 19 when he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in a wooded park in Baltimore.

Now 35, Syed is using new evidence uncovered by Serial to prompt the appeals court to grant a hearing on the possibility of a new trial.

Syed's attorneys are asking for a new trial on the grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, proved ineffective by failing to contact Chapman.

Chapman, a former classmate, testified Wednesday that she had a conversation with Syed at the library during the time prosecutors say Lee was killed.

Irwin said Gutierrez's failure to contact Chapman 'was well below the minimum required' for an attorney defending a client and that it was her duty to investigate all possible alibi witnesses.

'If you have a credible alibi witness, that's the best defense you can have,' he said.

Just a year after Syed's conviction, Gutierrez was disbarred in connection with other cases and her failing health due to the effects of multiple sclerosis.

Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah on Thursday tried to poke holes the testimony of Chapman, who wrote two letters to Syed shortly after he was imprisoned in 1999.

'I'm not sure if you remember talking to me in the library on Jan. 13 but I remembered chatting with you,' she wrote in one. 'I have reason to believe in your innocence.'

Chapman wrote that she contacted the library, which is next to their high school campus, and that they had a surveillance system. McClain also told Syed that she was trying to reach his attorney.

'If you were in the library for a while, tell the police and I'll continue to tell what I know even louder than I am,' she wrote.

'My boyfriend and his best friend remember seeing you there too.'

Vignarajah questioned how Chapman knew certain details about Syed's case that she mentions in the letter and whether she had written the second one weeks after she said she did, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Chapman said the information solely came from rumors and information she heard being shared at their high school and not, as suggested by Vignarajah, from a search warrant.

She also shot down the claim that Syed had sent her a letter from jail and asked her to type it, saying she had never even heard of the allegation.

Irwin called Chapman a 'fabulous' witness who would have 'changed the ballgame' had she testified at Syed's original trial.

Also on Friday, an investigator testified that he located 41 possible alibi witnesses for Syed, but only four told him they were contacted by the original defense team for the 2000 trial

Sean Gordon testified that out of 83 potential alibi witnesses, he was able to reach 41. Of those, he said, only four said they were contacted by Gutierrez and none were asked to testify.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled on Friday that Syed should be allowed to introduce the testimony of a potential alibi witness

Judge also said he should be allowed to introduce evidence that calls into question the reliability of cellphone tower data

Syed's attorneys are asking for a new trial on the grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, proved ineffective by failing to contact Chapman

Testimony also has focused on cellphone tower data that prosecutors used during Syed's first trial, claiming it placed him at the scene where Lee's body was found in 1999.

Gerald Grant, a communications forensics expert, testified in Baltimore City Circuit Court that jurors should have been told that AT&T cellphone records used to place Syed at the site were flawed.

The AT&T engineer who testified in the original trial was not aware that outgoing phone calls were reliable but incoming calls were not, Grant said.

A sheet accompanying the faxed records included that disclaimer but was misplaced or overlooked.

Meanwhile FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald testified, the prosecution's first witness, argued that the cover sheet is of no consequence and that testimony given at Syed's trial by AT&T radio frequency engineer Abraham Waranowitz was true.

Fitzgerald's testimony contradicted an affidavit that Waranowitz wrote last year that says if he'd known about the cover sheet his testimony would have been different.

On Friday afternoon Fitzgerald said he stood by the validity of the original data presented at trial.

But during cross-examination Syed's attorney Justin Brown asked how two calls contained in the data - one traced to Dupont Circle in Washington and another traced to Baltimore - could have been made just 27 minutes apart when it would be nearly impossible to travel the distance in that time.

Fitzgerald said in order to answer he'd need more information. 'It would cause me to do more research,' he said.  Testimony will continue Monday.

Original report here

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