Defense, State Rest as “Serial” Hearing Enters Home Stretch

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By Jessica DaSilva

The post-conviction hearing for Adnan Syed became more intense today as attorneys cross-examined two expert witnesses and conducted brief but firm examinations of a library security guard.

The defense also introduced a new affidavit aimed at undermining a major point in the state's case—that Syed attempted to obstruct justice by having his friends falsify alibi letters.

Syed was convicted in 2000, when he was 18 years old, of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, and he has maintained his innocence ever since. He was featured in National Public Radio's “Serial” podcast, which examined the evidence in his case.

The security guard worked at the library where an unchecked alibi witness claimed she saw Syed on the day of the murder.

Cell Tower Cross Continues

Defense attorney C. Justin Brown of Brown & Nieto LLC in Baltimore, continued with his cross-examination of FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald, who contradicted the defense's expert in interpreting the cell phone records placing Syed's phone at the location where Lee's body was found.

Syed's team claims the testimony of a cell tower expert at trial was incorrect because he wasn't provided a fax cover sheet that stated locations could only be determined using outgoing calls, rather than incoming calls.

The defense expert said this undermined the state's entire theory of the case, which heavily relied on those locations for Syed's mobile phone.

However, Fitzgerald said the cover sheet only applied to the redacted records, which had extraneous information mentioned in the fax cover sheet. The cover sheet then served as a legend, using abbreviations to reference specific columns of information on the redacted reports not included in the other set, he testified.

Duty to Investigate Alibi Witness

Following Fitzgerald, the attorneys resumed petitioner's case—specifically the cross-examination of David Irwin, an attorney with more than forty years of experience in both prosecution and criminal defense work. Friday, Irwin testified that Syed's trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, provided constitutionally deficient counsel that failed the two-pronged test set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

Part of Syed's case focuses on his trial counsel's failure to investigate the alibi testimony of Asia Chapman, who also testified at the current hearing.

By not investigating Chapman's testimony after Syed received letters from Chapman in jail within a week of his arrest, Gutierrez's performance fell below the minimum standard of care, Irwin said.

On cross-examination, the state focused its questions on hypotheticals regarding situations in which the duty to investigate an alibi witness would be diminished, if not totally lifted.

The example Irwin gave in response would be if an inpidual were on the space station at the time of a crime, an attorney would not be required to track them down through all of NASA, he said.

Then the state turned its attention toward the notes and memoranda throughout Gutierrez's file, asking Irwin whether Gutierrez's case load was more unreasonable than any public defender's.

“She wasn't getting public defender rates,” and this was a death penalty case, Irwin said. “A lot of public defenders get a lot of resources on death penalty cases.”

While the state questioned whether Gutierrez reasonably pursued a trial strategy that followed Syed's version of events for the day of the murder, Irwin maintained her representation amounted to ineffective assistance.

“She didn't have an alibi defense,” Irwin said. “She didn't produce an alibi witness, did she? Did she?”

The state responded that Gutierrez placed Syed's track coach and father on the stand to testify to his routine, but Irwin said those didn't count because they were biased.

“You're begging the world to think she had a strategy. She had no strategy. You can't have a strategy without information,” Irwin said.

On redirect, the defense brought in what it called the state's “smoking gun” in the case against Syed—that he wrote letters to three of his friends, including Chapman, asking them to write alibi letters on his behalf. Irwin stood firm, stating that statement to police didn't absolve the defense from its obligation.

Library Guard's Memory Challenged

The final witness to testify on behalf of the state was a security guard who worked at the Woodlawn Public Library in 1999, where Chapman claimed she saw Syed at the time of the murder.

The officer, whose name the court asked not to disclose and identified by the initials “SM,” testified that he signed a couple of documents after being interviewed by the State's detective on Feb. 3, 2016.

Those documents state that SM said there were no security cameras in the Woodlawn Public Library. They also detailed the fact that SM reviewed several pages of 1998-1999 yearbook photos and couldn't identify Syed as being in the library on the date of the murder. The state also asked if he was the officer identified in a police report who was interviewed during the murder investigation.

However, on cross-examination, SM admitted he couldn't remember any of the students and didn't identify any of the inpiduals in the photos provided to him. He also said he was not surprised to learn that the library had surveillance cameras because he worked for the security company contracted to the library, rather than for the library itself.

SM also admitted that he had no recollection of the police interview in 1999 after the murder. He only remembered the murder itself because the students were sad after the incident, he said. Viewing the police report didn't refresh his memory, though he said no one else working security shared his name so he was certain the report referred to him.

After SM's testimony, defense counsel entered into evidence an affidavit from Ju'aun Gordon, the friend referenced by the state as having said Syed asked people to write him alibi letters. The affidavit appeared to be written and signed on Feb. 7, 2016, at 5:05 p.m.

The letter stated that the letters Gordon told police about were in reference to character letters and that Syed didn't ask any of his friends to falsify an alibi for him. It hadn't been previously introduced as evidence.

Following the evidence, the defense and state rested their cases. Defense counsel reserved the right to submit a rebuttal witness. The hearing has been extended to Feb. 9, barring a snow closure at the courthouse, to resume the rebuttal case and closing arguments.

You can follow developments on Twitter @jdasilva.

A recap of the Feb. 5 testimony is available at

A recap of the Feb. 4 testimony is available at

A recap of the Feb. 3 testimony is available at

An interview with Jessica DaSilva about the hearing is available at

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at