Judge Martin Welch to deliver written judgment after Syeds lawyers argue original defense attorney failed to investigate alibi
The hearing for Adnan Syeds request for a retrial of the murder case against him wrapped up in Baltimore on Tuesday, though the judge said that he would offer a written opinion and would not rule from the bench.
According to legal observers, the five-day proceeding was highly unusual for what is known as a post-conviction hearing which generally has a very limited scope often feeling more like a trial than a limited hearing.
Syeds defense attorney, C Justin Brown, called it the first ever open-source case, with the hearing, in many ways, a result of new evidence that came to light when the podcast Serial set hundreds of online sleuths on to the case of Hae Min Lees murder 17 years ago and, crucially, brought out the potential alibi witness Asia McClain. Syeds lawyers argued that his initial defense team failed in their constitutional duty to investigate an alibi witness.
Because the case had received such wide attention and the evidence had become so widely available, the files of the original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who was subsequently disbarred and later passed away, were opened to the state.
In closing remarks, the state used those files to argue that Gutierrez had good reason not to investigate the alibi, suggesting, on the basis of a handwritten note in Gutierrezs papers that appeared to question a detail of the alibi, that the testimony would have hurt the defense.
In previous testimony, David Irwin, a defense attorney called as an expert witness for Syed, testified that it is mandated to investigate an alibi to discover whether or not it will hurt the case. In his rebuttal, Brown reminded the judge, Martin Welch, that a theory proffered by an attorney litigating a case does not count as testimony. We are not in the business of conspiracy theories, he said, noting that the state has got to have a witness.
Celebrated defense attorney Billy Murphy had been scheduled to take the stand for the state, which ended up not calling him. But, in contrast to a usual trial, the burden of proof here lies with the defendant so the state is not required to present any witnesses at all.
Though the case was made famous by what Vignarajah called a first of its kind podcast, it was also one of the first times that cellphone data was used to determine the location of a defendant when it was first litigated in 1999. A cover letter to the original data sent by AT&T that indicated that incoming calls were not reliable in determining location status was the second issue to be dealt with by the hearing.
Cell site experts for both sides sparred over the interpretation of the antiquated subscriber records, with special agent Chad Fitzgerald dramatically accusing Brown of manipulating the records in order to skew his testimony. A good ruse, a good effort to trick a witness, Vignarajah said in his two-hour closing remarks.
Brown countered by noting the irony that the state had offered the documents which he said were impossible to read into the record and that they were the only version in Gutierrezs files.
For all of the technological novelty in the case, there are many old-fashioned elements as well. According to Syeds mother, Shamim Syed, simple racism was behind the initial arrest.
For me it was discrimination, she told the Guardian as the hearing began last week. He was a 17-year-old Muslim. If his name was something else they wouldnt touch him but his name was Adnan Syed and his parents were from Pakistan and they forgot he was born and raised in America. For me it was totally discrimination.
Lawyers for both sides refused to speculate on when the judge may offer a ruling, but Brown vowed to follow the case to the bitter end.
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