True Crime is certainly the flavour of the month. After the internet sensation and scrutiny surrounding ‘Making A Murderer’ and the return of investigative podcast ‘Serial’, it appears that ‘injustice’ is the word on everybody’s lips.
Right now, in Baltimore, USA – Adnan Syed, the subject of Serial’s first season is receiving a post-conviction hearing that could instigate a new trial. Serial host Sarah Koenig is at the hearing and has been updating us day-by-day about the hearing from her hotel room in Baltimore, in a new set of thrilling 15-minute-long podcasts on the Serial website.
Holed up in the hotel closet (for sound purposes), Koenig is calling serial producer Dana Chivvis to provide some tense updates on the hearing including her amazement that parts of Serial is influencing this hearing and the drama potential new alibi Asia McClain is bringing into the court room. The podcasts are available on their site to listen to right now, for those who were enthralled by Syed’s case.
For those in need of a recap, in 2000, 17-year old Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, who was strangled to death in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed has always maintained his innocence and claims to have been wrongly convicted. 14 years later, Syed became the focus of international attention after his trial and conviction became the subject of Serial – an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig.
The podcast originally called into question the evidence provided at his trial, including the reliability of the cell phone ‘pings’ that placed him at the location of Lee’s murder, some missing evidence, the veracity of his defence lawyer and the shaky testimony of accomplice, Jay Wilds. There was no DNA evidence linking Syed to the murder and the podcast also suggested there was a mishandling of evidence which could be reason alone to re-examine Syed’s case.
Here’s what Sarah Koenig has reported back on in her explosive new podcasts.
A Summary Of The Hearing So Far
Day One – 3rd February
In court Hae Min Lee’s family are still convinced that the Syed is guilty of murdering their daughter back in 1999 and through a statement which was read by the prosecution said: “We believe justice was done when Adnan was convicted in 2000, and we look forward to bringing this chapter to an end so we can celebrate the memory of Hae instead of celebrating the man who killed her,”
The rest of the day focused on talking to Asia McClain – a potential alibi who claims that she spoke to Syed in the school library at the alleged time of murder in January 1999. Koenig described McClain as striking and ‘very sure of herself and what she remembered” when she was called to giver her testimony. McClain claimed that Kevin Urick – a prosecutor from Syed’s original 2000 trial – ‘misrepresented’ the case to her and doubted her alibi when she made herself known.
McClain also reported that she offered an alibi soon after his arrest, but this was not pursued by Syed’s defence attorney – Cristina Guitterez. McClain said that she moved on after she was not asked to provide an alibi for Syed, but realised her importance to the case when speaking to Sarah Koenig, host of the podcast Serial. “I didn’t think I was very important at all,” McClain testified in court. “I came to find out, as Sarah said, maybe it is important.”
Day Two – 4th February
Asis McClain continued to be questioned by both the defence and the prosecution, focusing on a letter she sent to Syed when he was in custody. Thiru Vignarajah from the prosecution said that the letter indicated that McClain was offering her help to Syed to ‘cover up’ for the murder he committed, and that she was helped to draft the letter sent to Syed. McClain rebutted this suggestion saying, “I’m not responsible for what other people might interpret,”.
Later in the day, focus of the case moved to the issue of the cellphone evidence that placed Syed at the scene of the crime. In the original trial, the evidence that he was in the area of the murder and burial was a key to his guilty verdict. The defence alleges that the police ignored warnings from AT&T (Syed’s network provider) that the evidence could be inaccurate due to the nature of accuracy from the towers that located him there and the nature of ‘pings’ that placed him in the location. You can read more in depth about this piece of evidence below.
In court, cellphone expert Gerald Grant was called to testify about the accuracy of the evidence. Syed’s defence claim that the police ignored the warning from AT&T about the accuracy of the evidence and Grant agreed that the warning should have been acknowledged and honoured by the prosecution.
Vignarajah later questioned Grant, asking him to provide an example of when incoming calls had been proved to be inaccurate. Grant failed to provide any specific examples.
Koenig noted in the 4th February podcast that there was no big ‘bombshell’ regarding the cellphone evidence – but that it indeed was setting up for one.
Day Three – 5th February
Koenig and Chivvis spoke on Friday evening – the day which the hearing was scheduled to conclude, and Koenig made it clear in no uncertain terms that this hearing still has some way to go.
Koenig relayed the information that the important topic of the day were the cell phone records that were used to incriminate Syed. The state (prosecution) brought an FBI phone expert who made clear that the warning sent to the prosecution in 1999 was heeded appropriately. He expanded saying that the warning usually applies to tower ‘switches’ (a larger form of cell tower) as opposed to cell towers – the type which Syed’s phone sent the ‘pings’ to. Syed’s defence and their own cell phone expert claimed that this was false and the inaccuracies do apply to cell phone towers. Koenig called this part of the trial a draw – as neither team put forward a confident case to disprove the other.
The rest of the day focused on the reliability of Asia’s alibi and the defence suggesting that Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez was negligent in the handling of potential alibis for Syed. David Irwin, a criminal defence attorney, testified for Syed’s defence suggested that Asia’s alibi should have been chased up better by Syed’s original defence team in 1999. “If you have a credible alibi witness, that is the best possible defence you can have”, stoking the suggestion that Gutierrez did not do a thorough job for her client.
Koenig elaborated on the hearing’s length and said it is unclear which way the judge is leaning in regards to granting a new trial for Syed. Either way, Koenig suggested that we will see an appeal from one side when the judge makes his decision, prolonging the case even further.
What’s Left To Come?
Let’s remind ourselves of some of the bits in Serial that just didn’t add up which we could see brought back into the courtroom:
Cell Phone ‘Ping’ Inaccuracies
In the 2000 trial, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Syed was his apparent location at the burial site for Lee’s body in Leakin Park, Baltimore. It was claimed that his cell phone had received two calls on the day of her burial in January 1999, and these incoming calls caused his phone to ‘ping’ twice to a signal to a phone tower nearby – placing him at the scene.
In a motion field by Syed’s appeal lawyer, Justin Brown, it is suggested that the cell phone tower ‘pings’ should not have been used as evidence, in part due to their unreliability. It is claimed that AT&T (Syed’s cell phone provider) explicitly warned the police that only outgoing calls were reliable for location – and as such the incoming calls should not be used as evidence against Syed. Call logs provided by the provider suggested that Syed made no calls at the time the murder allegedly happened – casting doubt on his location at the site.
The cell phone ‘pings’ were not the only piece of evidence used to convict Syed – another key piece of evidence was his lack of an alibi. This week however, we will finally hear from Asia McClain, a potential alibi who claims to have spoken to Syed at the time of Lee’s murder in their high school library.
In the 2000 trial, Syed was convicted due to evidence allegedly placing him at the location of Lee’s burial but also a testimony from his friend Jay Wilds, who claimed that he was told of Syed’s plan to murder Lee and assisted in burying Lee’s body.
At the time, high school classmate Asia McClain was not approached by the police to give a statement regarding a potential alibi, but spoke to the producers of the podcast to make herself known as an alibi for Syed.
Perhaps to limit damage to his own case, Syed did not provide a testimony at the trial in 2000. During the course of the podcast, host Koenig noted that Syed’s inability to recall any events of that day Lee was supposedly murdered could appear suspicious and Syed was also shown to be contradictory on several occasions, or non-compliant with the initial police investigation, something which contributed to his guilty verdict.
It was likely suggested by his lawyer that he not testify in the court due to his inability to recall the day’s events. It has been rumoured that at the upcoming hearing Syed would provide a testimony that may contradict or place pressure on the prosecution’s story.
Syed’s upcoming hearing could provide closure or an explosive reopening of the controversial case which has led to 120 million downloads of the Serial podcast. If you’re yet to listen to it, you can catch up on Serial here.