Saturday, July 02, 2016

Serial's Adnan Syed wins a new trial 16 years after he was convicted of murdering high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee

Adnan Syed, the man whose murder conviction was at the center of the podcast 'Serial', has won a new trial in Baltimore after 16 years.

Syed was convicted of murdering his former high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 and burying her in a park. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch ruled Thursday that Syed deserves another trial because his attorney failed to cross-examine a cell tower expert about the reliability of data that placed Syed's cellphone near the burial site.

Welch wrote in his opinion that Syed's trial attorney 'rendered ineffective assistance when she failed to cross-examine the state's expert regarding the reliability of cell tower evidence'.

Upon hearing the news, C. Justin Brown, Syed's attorney took to Twitter to write: 'WE WON A NEW TRIAL FOR ADNAN SYED! #FreeAdnan.'

According to The New York Times, Brown said at a press conference Thursday afternoon that he doesn't think the retrial could have come about without 'Serial'.

On the chance of  Syed being released, Brown said: 'I’m feeling pretty confident right now. This was the biggest hurdle. It’s really hard to get a new trial.'

Yusuf Syed, Adnan's brother, said the family was 'feeling great' about the news. 'I had a feeling in my heart it was going to happen,' he told the Baltimore Sun. 'We are just very happy. It's not only a win for us but a win for a lot of people who are stuck in the system because it opened a lot of people's eyes about the justice system.'

Sarah Koenig, who was behind Serial, has yet to comment on the ruling.

The ruling comes four months after Brown argued in court that the original defense was crippled by the omission of Asia Chapman, a former classmate of Syed. Brown argued that Chapman's testimony could have potentially altered the outcome of the case.

Just a year after Syed's conviction, Cristina Gutierrez, who representing him during the original murder trial 16 years ago, was disbarred in connection with other cases and her failing health due to the effects of multiple sclerosis.

Brown argued that Gutierrez was ineffective because she didn't contact Chapman, who has vouched for Syed.

In Welch's order, he disagreed that Gutierrez erred when she failed to contact Chapman, or that prosecutors breached their duty by withholding exculpatory evidence. But Welch did agree that Syed's attorney provided ineffective assistance for the failure to cross-examine the state's cell tower expert about the reliability of cell tower location evidence' that placed him near the burial site.

During the extensive hearing, defense attorneys and prosecutors called witnesses and vigorously cross-examined others.

Chapman spent nearly two days on the stand, testifying she and Syed spent about 15 minutes chatting in the library on Jan. 13, 1999, but that despite repeated efforts to reach Syed's defense team at the time with an offer to be an alibi, she was never contacted.

Chapman wrote a pair of letters and sent them to Syed in jail days after the man's arrest, detailing their meeting. Syed's current attorneys, Brown and Christopher Nieto, pointed to the letters as proof of her story, which has remained largely consistent for 16 years.

Prosecutors used one of the letters to try to impeach Chapman's testimony. Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah suggested it contained information lifted directly from a search warrant executed much later than the letter's March 2 date, implying Syed fed Chapman information.

Additionally, Vignarajah presented records showing that Gutierrez, as well as a team of attorneys working on Syed's case before she signed on, was aware of Chapman but decided against calling her to the stand.

Chapman, Vignarajah argued, contradicted Syed's story, one that relied on several witnesses whose accounts ultimately bolstered the testimony of Syed's original alibi, Jay Wilds, a high school friend who acknowledged helping bury Lee. Wilds made a plea deal in exchange for probation and became the state's star witness against Syed.

Brown also called witnesses to testify that cell tower data — an important piece of the state's case against Syed — should have never been presented to jurors without an instruction sheet warning that any incoming call data is inconclusive.

Brown showed the judge an affidavit from the radio frequency technician who testified at Syed's trial for the prosecution that said his testimony would have been different had he seen the instruction sheet prior to taking the stand.

But prosecutors countered that the instructions didn't pertain to any relevant data placing Syed's phone in Leakin Park during the time Lee was buried.

This was Syed's second attempt at a new trial. Welch denied the earlier post-conviction relief bid in 2014 after determining that Gutierrez's decision not to pursue Chapman was the result of reasonable trial strategy, not neglect.

However, information came to light later. Chapman did not testify at the first post-conviction hearing.

Instead, original prosecutor Kevin Urick took the stand, and recalled a phone conversation he'd had with Chapman in 2010. She called him after Brown had come to her home. On the stand, Urick characterized the conversation as lasting only a few minutes, and said Chapman decided not to come forward.

Chapman testified at the most recent hearing that Urick misled her and mischaracterized their conversation. She said she didn't learn of Urick's statements until she listened to "Serial." Afterward, Chapman reached out to Brown and offered to testify.

The podcast, which debuted in the winter of 2014, attracted millions of listeners and shattered records for the number of times a podcast has been streamed and downloaded. The loyal army of listeners often acted as armchair detectives, uncovering new evidence and raising new questions about the case.

Original report here

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