Lawyer: Omission of witness crippled ‘Serial’ case’s defense
BALTIMORE (AP) — An attorney told a Baltimore judge Friday that a witness who could have provided an alibi for the convicted killer at the center of the popular “Serial” podcast would have been “critical” in the man’s first trial, had she been contacted by his original defense team.
The failure of Adnan Syed’s attorney to call Asia McClain, now known as Asia Chapman, as an alibi witness crippled his defense, David Irwin said.
He said he couldn’t “think of a reason that a live alibi witness wouldn’t need to be investigated.”
The podcast revolved around the story of Syed, now 35 and serving a life sentence. At 19 he was convicted of strangling his high school girlfriend and burying her body in a wooded park on the northwestern edge of Baltimore. The show raised questions about the fairness of Syed’s trial in Hae Min Lee’s death. It gained a cult following and uncovered evidence that helped prompt a Maryland appeals court to grant a hearing on the possibility of a new trial.
Syed’s attorneys are asking for a new trial on the grounds that his original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, proved ineffective by failing to contact Chapman.
Chapman testified Wednesday that she had a conversation with Syed at the library during the time prosecutors say Lee was killed. Chapman has said Syed’s defense team never contacted her for her testimony. Syed’s current attorneys say that amounts to ineffective counsel.
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah on Thursday tried to poke holes in Chapman’s testimony. But Chapman maintained that her account was true.
Irwin called Chapman a “fabulous” witness who would have “changed the ballgame” had she testified at Syed’s original trial.
“If you have a credible alibi witness, that’s the best defense you can have.”
Irwin said Gutierrez’s failure to contact Chapman “sadly was well below the minimum required” for an attorney defending a client, adding that it was her duty to investigate all possible alibi witnesses for Syed, including Chapman.
Also on Friday, an investigator testified that he located 41 possible alibi witnesses for Syed, but only four told him they were contacted by the original defense team for the 2000 trial
Sean Gordon testified that out of 83 potential alibi witnesses, he was able to reach 41. Of those, he said, only four said they were contacted by Gutierrez and none were asked to testify.
Testimony also has focused on cellphone tower data that prosecutors used during the first trial of Syed’s first trial saying it placed him at the scene where Lee’s body was found in 1999.
Attorneys for Syed have said the data was given to a jury without a fax cover sheet warning that it referred only to outgoing calls, and any information about incoming calls was unreliable.
On Friday, however, the prosecution’s first witness said the cellphone tower data was accurate.
FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald testified that the cover sheet is of no consequence, and that testimony given at Syed’s trial by AT&T radio frequency engineer Abraham Waranowitz was true, with the exception of one phone call that Waranowitz identified as Syed calling his own voicemail.
Fitzgerald’s testimony contradicted an affidavit that Waranowitz wrote last year that says if he’d known about the cover sheet his testimony would have been different.
On Friday afternoon Fitzgerald said he stood by the validity of the original data presented at trial. But during cross-examination Syed’s attorney Justin Brown asked how two calls contained in the data — one traced to Dupont Circle in Washington and another traced to Baltimore could have been made just 27 minutes apart when it would be nearly impossible to travel the distance in that time.
Fitzgerald said in order to answer he’d need more information.
“It would cause me to do more research,” he said.
Testimony will continue Monday.
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