November 29, 2018 / 11:13 AM / 10 months ago

'Serial' alibi witness posed 'terrible risk' to defense, Maryland says

ANNAPOLIS, Md./NEW YORK (Reuters) - Maryland on Thursday asked the state’s top court to reinstate the murder conviction of a man whose guilt was cast into doubt by the “Serial” podcast, saying his lawyer would have run “a terrible risk” by interviewing a witness who provided an alibi that conflicted with what the man had told investigators.

FILE PHOTO: Convicted murderer Adnan Syed arrives at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland February 5, 2016. Syed, 35, was convicted in 2000 of kidnapping and strangling his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, 18, and is serving a life sentence. He is seeking a retrial based on new evidence about his case amid questions about the fairness of his conviction raised by the popular "Serial" podcast. REUTERS/Carlos Barria /File Photo

The man, Adnan Syed, who has been serving a life sentence since 2000, repeatedly tried to appeal his conviction on charges of murdering his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, before Chicago public radio station WBEZ’s “Serial” uncovered new alibi evidence in 2014.

Syed’s current lawyers argued that his initial defense attorney, who died in 2004, did not defend him effectively because she failed to investigate claims that a friend, Asia McClain, saw Syed in a public library around the time that prosecutors said he strangled Lee.

The state’s attorney, Thiruvendran Vignarajah, dismissed the idea that Syed’s attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, should have reached out to McClain because her story conflicted with Syed’s account. Syed never said he was at the library that day, so interviewing McClain could have raised questions about his truthfulness, he said.

“That also is a terrible risk,” Vignarajah said.

Syed’s current attorney, Cate Stetson, said Gutierrez had an obligation to pursue the alibi.

“An alibi witness is the best defense you can have,” Stetson said. “Before the trial, Mr. Syed asked his lawyer, ‘Did you reach out to Ms. McClain?’ She lied and said nothing came of it.”

McClain said in an affidavit she saw Syed in Baltimore’s Woodlawn Public Library around the time prosecutors say he strangled Lee.

Syed, now 38, was accused of murdering Lee in 1999, when they were both high school students.

Syed’s case re-entered the public eye as the subject of the “Serial” podcast, which has been downloaded tens of millions of times since its 2014 launch.

The podcast raised new evidence through an interview with McClain.

A Baltimore judge in 2016 vacated Syed’s conviction, ruling that Gutierrez did not defend him effectively when she failed to investigate McClain’s story. That ruling would set the stage for a new trial, which has been delayed by appeals by state prosecutors.

The state Court of Special Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision earlier this year.

The state appealed that ruling a second time on the grounds that the lower court was wrong to find that Syed previously had an ineffective defense counsel.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis

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