Adnan Syed in court for post-conviction hearing

Posted at 11:59 AM, Feb 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 09:36:02-05

The case that sparked the most popular podcast ever took center stage in a Baltimore City courtroom on Wednesday.

Adnan Syed of Woodlawn is serving life in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.  Supporters -- encouraged by the podcast "Serial" -- believe he didn't do it.

Syed walked into Courthouse East on Wednesday for the first day of a three-day post-conviction proceeding.  At the end of the hearing, Judge Martin Welch will consider whether Syed should get a new trial.

Syed is now 35 years old.  He and Hae Min Lee were students at Woodlawn High School in the late 1990's.  They dated, then broke up.

On January 13th, 1999, Lee disappeared.  Police eventually focused on Syed, and he was arrested after her body was found a month later, in Baltimore City's Leakin Park.

In 2000 a jury convicted Syed and sentenced him to life in prison.

For the state. the motivation to keep him from getting new trial is simple.  In his opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said:  “Mr. Syed was convicted because he did it.  And the state proved it."

But then, Syed's story was recounted in the podcast "Serial," and 10's of millions of people heard it.

His attorneys push for a new trial is based on two arguments.  The first is that a classmate was with him at the Woodlawn Public Library at the time the state believes he was killing Hae Min Lee.

That classmate, Asia McClain, came to Baltimore from her home in Washington State to testify.

Plus, Syed's current attorneys claims that his attorney at the time, Christina Gutierrez, never tried to contact McClain.

“You cannot have anything more ineffective than that. Like that's the one thing that she needed to do. She didn't need to do anything else in the case but contact this witness,” said Rabie Chaudry, a longtime friend of Adnan Syed.

Two of Gutierrez's former colleagues Phil Dantes and Bill Kanwisher, testified Wednesday that while she was once a well-respected attorney, her skills began to decline along with her health in the late 1990's.

Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001, and died in 2004.

Kanwisher also testified that there could be no strategic reason for Gutierrez not to contact a potential alibi witness.  A key for the defense as it tries to prove Syed was the victim of ineffective council at his trial.

But the key witness Wednesday was Asia McClain.

She said she always remembered seeing Syed at the Woodlawn Public Library on January 13, 1999, but never came forward.

McClain moved to Washington State, where she is married and has two children.

In 2010, she contacted the man who prosecuted Syed, Kevin Urick.  On the witness stand, she said that he discouraged her from coming forward.

Then, she said Sarah Koenig called her in January of 2014, and recorded an interview for NPR.  McClain said she had not heard of a podcast, and didn’t know the interview would be used in what came to be known as “Serial.”

Later that year she began hearing from friends, who told her they had heard the interview on the podcast.

She listened to it herself, and then contacted Syed’s current attorney, Justin Brown.  In January of 2015 McClain swore a new affidavit about her claim to have seen Adnan Syed on January 13, 1999.

"I think in order for justice to be served all information needs to be on the table.  I just thought it was the right thing to do,” McClain said on the witness stand.

The state began its cross-examination of Asia McClain late Wednesday afternoon by questioning her memory of dates and places from 1999; the cross-examination will continue Thursday.

After the first day of the hearing, Syed’s attorney sounded confident:  “I think it was a pretty good day for us. We're trying to get evidence in. We're trying to prove our case. And the state's trying to keep evidence out. So, so far so good,” Brown said.

The second issue for Syed's defense team involves cell tower technology.  At his trial, cell phone calls placed him at the murder scene.  His attorneys believe that technology was unreliable; more testimony on that is expected later in the week.

The proceedings will start up again at 9:30 Thursday morning at Courthouse East.