‘Serial' Hearing Day Two: Cell Site Evidence Questioned

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By Jessica DaSilva

The presentation of evidence continued today at the high-profile, post-conviction hearing for Adnan Syed, the defendant featured in National Public Radio's “Serial” podcast.

The testimony included more from an alibi witness and the appearance of a cellphone forensics expert and historian.

Day two of the hearing opened Feb. 4 with the testimony of Asia Chapman, the alibi witness who said she saw Syed at the library at the time the state claimed he killed his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Later in the day, a cellphone forensics expert and historian testified that the state's expert witness at the 1999 trial gave incorrect testimony based on incomplete cellphone records provided by the state.

Both witnesses are related to two ineffective assistance of counsel claims and an alternative Brady violation allegation from Syed, who rose to fame as the central defendant in the viral podcast dedicated to reviewing the evidence in his case.

Syed was convicted in 2000, when he was 18 years old, for the Lee's murder. He has maintained his innocence ever since.

Chapman faced continued cross-examination from the state, which predominantly focused on her disagreement with the testimony of Rabia Chaudry.

Chaudry, Syed's friend who originally brought the case to “Serial” creators, testified at a post-conviction hearing in 2013 that she met Chapman at the public library to write Chapman's initial affidavit and that Chapman kept trying to speak to police and lawyers, but went unheard.

However, Chapman denied that turn of events. She said Chaudry showed up at her grandparents' house. Chapman said she remembered it, because on the way back from getting the affidavit notarized, Chaudry accidentally drove two houses past the right one.

Chapman did admit to calling police, but she “chickened out,” got scared and hung up.

The state pushed Chapman on all of her timelines, once attempting to undermine Chapman's memory regarding the day of the murder using the “Serial” transcript.

The state tried to pick apart Chapman's phrasing in the two letters she wrote to Syed and her memory surrounding dates for the murder, Syed's arrest, and the two days she wrote the letters.

Redirect examination brought the focus back to basics, asking what Chapman remembered with 100-percent certainty.

“I saw Adnan Syed in the library at 2:15 p.m. for 15-20 minutes,” she began. She continued that she wrote two affidavits and did her best to disclose what she knew about the day of the murder and a phone call with Syed's original prosecutor Kevin Urick.

Chapman discovered that Urick testified at a post-conviction hearing that Chapman said her alibi was coerced from Syed's family and that the call lasted for five minutes. Chapman said those statements were false during her day-one testimony.

Cell Site Analysis

C. Justin Brown, Syed's defense counsel from Brown & Nieto LLC, Baltimore, next called Gerald “Jerry” Grant, an expert in mobile phone forensics and historic cell site analysis.

Brown introduced two versions of mobile phone records into evidence. One included a critical cover sheet that included a statement that only outgoing calls were reliable for location evidence. The records entered at trial didn't include the cover sheet.

Grant specifically stated that sheet counted as instructions, which are typically included in phone record requests so police can understand how to read and interpret them.

Instructions are necessary because mobile phone record storage changes over time. For example, companies might change timestamps from Eastern Standard Time to Central Standard Time, he said.

The mobile phone expert at Syed's original trial, Abraham Waranowitz, pinpointed locations based off of incoming calls to connect Syed to the site where Lee's body was found in the now infamous Leakin Park. In November 2015, he signed an affidavit stating that he never saw the cover sheet instructions and if he had, his testimony wouldn't have included locations based off of incoming calls.

Grant read the affidavit and spoke to Waranowitz, who told him the same statement.

Part of the issue, Grant said, was because Waranowitz worked with cell tower equipment—including design, networking and signal strength. Waranowitz didn't work with mobile phone records. The other part was that the State provided the incomplete records “just before” Waranowitz gave his trial testimony, Grant added.

On cross-examination, the state stressed that the police and AT&T exchanged myriad faxes in an attempt to gather all of Syed's mobile phone records, asking Grant to identify multiple fax cover sheets between the two parties.

Additionally, the state implied that Grant misinterpreted the cover sheet, which it argued could exclusively refer to earlier redacted mobile phone records.

Grant said no, the cover letter referred to any of the cellphone records that came with it. Also, Grant said the redacted records didn't include specific locations, but general locations for switchboards that can cover larger areas like the distance between Baltimore and Washington

That would be the equivalent of trying to track down an address without a city, state or zip code, Grant explained.

Wrapping up, the state asked whether Grant took issue with the fact that no one used the cover sheet as criticism.

“No, not criticism,” Grant said. “There were instructions. They should have been followed.”

The state followed up and asked why AT&T would have said that incoming calls were unreliable. Grant said he read testimony from a case that for calls between AT&T customers at that time, an unanswered incoming call would hit the cell tower near the caller, rather than the receiver.

“Do you want to know what the actual answer is?” the state asked, drawing an objection from Syed's counsel, which the court sustained.

The hearing will continue through Feb. 5. You can follow developments on Twitter @jdasilva.

A recap of the Feb. 3 testimony is available at http://www.bna.com/witnesses-offer-new-n57982066952/.

An interview with Jessica DaSilva about the hearing is available at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/audio/2016-02-04/bloomberg-best-special-delivery-serial-update-audio.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com