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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Defense Errors Probed in Adnan Syed Conviction

BALTIMORE (CN) - A criminal defense expert testified Friday that the attorney for Adnan Syed - convicted for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend - made a grave mistake by failing to investigate a potential alibi witness.

Attorney David Erwin's droll testimony highlighted the fact that Asia Chapman - her last name was McClain in 1999 and has continually been referred to by her maiden name in court - could have produced "game-changing" testimony in the trial of Syed, now 34.

Syed was sentenced to life in prison for the murder in 2000, but "Serial" raised questions about the teen's conviction in a 2014 series that became the most downloaded podcast of all time.

Under questioning by Syed's attorney C. Justin Brown, Erwin said the failure of Syed's trial counsel Cristina Gutierrez to have McClain testify amounted to gross failure and that without appropriate investigation into the possibility of McClain's testimony "there can be no strategy."

Brown has argued Gutierrez provided inadequate representation that warrants a new trial for Syed. Gutierrez died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 52, and Maryland had disbarred her three years earlier for misconduct in unrelated cases.

McClain, who testified the first two days of the hearings, attended Woodlawn High School with Syed and 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, who was found strangled and in a shallow grave in Leakin Park about a month after she went missing on Jan. 13, 1999. McClain wrote two letters in which she said she had seen Syed at a public library on the campus of the school they attended, at the time investigators said Lee was killed.

"The letters begged to have follow-up investigations," Erwin said. "[McClain] was ready, willing and available to testify to what she believed was the truth."

Erwin said that the slight inconsistencies in McClain's letters and testimony on the stand make her testimony more credible.

"She may not have been as polished as she was the last two days, but she would have been a diamond in the rough," Erwin testified.

Erwin's sross-examination by Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah was postponed until the hearings continue, and it is unclear when that will be. Retired Judge Martin Welch was called up to hear the testimony and make the ruling, which will be issued at a later date.

In testimony earlier on Friday, defense investigator Sean Gordon said he was able to locate 41 of 83 people listed as alibi witnesses, but that McClain was not among those. Gordon testified that few people on an alibi list from the original case had been contacted.

During cross-examination, attorneys for the state responded with memos that suggested more vigorous work from the defense team than the investigator had been able to discern.

Gordon testified only four of the people he was able to reach said the defense team had contacted them, and none of them were contacted about providing an alibi.

The defense also called Michelle Hamiel, a librarian at the Woodlawn Library where McClain said she saw Syed. McClain had mentioned in her letters that there may have been security cameras in the building.

Hamiel testified the tapes were recorded over on a rolling monthly basis and footage of Syed with McClain would have been deleted by the time Syed was arrested in late February 1999.

The day ended with testimony by the state's witness FBI agent Chad Fitzgerald, who testified that the first expert witness Abraham Waranowitz, was correct in his interpretation of the cellphone date that placed Syed at the park where Lee was found on the day investigators believe she was buried.

Fitzgerald's testimony directly counters Syed's defense witness Gerald Grant, an expert on cellphone technology, who claimed that cell tower evidence used to place Syed near Leakin Park was unreliable.

Although the hearing was originally scheduled for three days and was to end on Friday, it will be extended. It is unclear whether proceedings will continue Monday or at a later date.

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