When President Obama visits the Islamic Society of Baltimore today—the first time in his presidency that he's stepped inside an American mosque—he will "affirm the important role that Muslim Americans play in our society and affirm our conviction in the principle of religious liberty," press secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday.
It's not clear yet whether Obama will also address the situation of one of the mosque's most notable members: Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer whose case was examined in the hugely popular Serial podcast last year. He used to worship at the mosque, and his family still does.
At the same time that Obama will speak at the mosque today, Syed will be sitting in a Baltimore courtroom a few miles away facing a key legal hearing. Starting this morning, Syed's case is getting a second post-conviction hearing, which will last until Friday. Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland Law School professor who represented Syed in 1999 during his bail hearings, said that the hearing will make-or-break his chance for freedom.
"This clearly represents Adnan Syed's best opportunity to gain a new trial and to demonstrate the unfairness of the jury's verdict," Colbert told me.
Syed, 35, was convicted in 2000 of murdering his high school classmate, Hae Min Lee, and is currently serving a life sentence. In Serial, host Sarah Koenig laid out the twists and turns of the case and re-interviewed dozens of people associated.
One classmate interviewed by Koenig, Asia McClain, said she talked with Syed at a local library at the same time that the prosecution claims Syed was murdering Lee. McClain was never called to testify in Syed's original trial, but will be speaking on the stand this week.
The hearing will also touch on whether Syed's trial lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided him adequate counsel and whether the prosecution misled the jury on certain phone tracing evidence. (Gutierrez died in 2004.)
Colbert said it was "extraordinary" for a court to grant a second post-conviction hearing. It's unlikely that the hearing would have been called without the new evidence brought to light by Serial, especially the perspective of McClain. "It's obvious that the court wants to address some very serious issues," Colbert said.
In order to grant Syed's request for a new trial, Judge Martin Welch would have to decide that the evidence presented in the hearing would likely have made a difference in the jury's verdict. That's a pretty high bar to meet, and prosecutors are expected to argue in favor of upholding the jury's verdict.
Some of Syed's supporters are hoping that President Obama chose to visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore because of the case. "I refuse to believe White House folks don't know about the connection, so I'll just take the visit as the President's endorsement to #FreeAdnan!" Rabia Chaudry, a family friend who is writing a book about Syed, wrote in a Facebook post.
Does the president's visit suggest that Obama is a Serial fan? "I would not be surprised," Colbert said with a chuckle.
But he said it was unlikely that the President would address the Syed case during his visit today. "The timing I guess couldn't be more opportune in terms of raising an issue of potential injustice," he said, but "the President is a law professor and knows not to make any comments about cases until the process has concluded."
"I think he's there for a different purpose," Colbert said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.