In the fall of 2014, Serial introduced the world to the case of Adnan Syed, a man serving a life sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in the winter of 1999 in Baltimore. Over the course of 12 episodes, the podcast delved into the history and lives of everyone connected to the murder trial and ultimately made a compelling argument that the state's case against Syed might have led to a wrongful conviction.
Though Serial itself was not involved in any of Syed's court proceedings, it's difficult to deny the role that the podcast played in bringing Syed's case to a much larger audience and making the idea of a giving Syed another day in court sound like the morally (and legally) right thing to do.
Before it even launched, Serial was the number one podcast on iTunes' charts, where it stayed until three months after the last episode aired. Sarah Koenig, Serial's host and producer, won the first-ever Peabody awarded to a podcast and was named as one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People of the Year in 2015.
Just weeks after the last episode of Serial's first season aired, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals announced that it would allow Syed to appeal his conviction, giving his current legal team the chance to argue that his original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, effectively failed to provide a proper defense for her client.
Now, nearly six years after initially being denied his chance for appeal, Syed is back in court for a post-conviction relief hearing that contains new evidence and testimony that could ultimately lead to him getting a new trial.
C. Justin Brown, Syed's new defense attorney, is focusing on elements of his client's initial case that he claims were mishandled or improperly argued, resulting in Syed's guilty verdict. In particular, Brown has introduced testimony from Asia McClain, a former classmate of Syed's who has not previously testified, and who claims to be able to place Syed away from where he is said to have killed Lee.
"On January 13, 1999, I got out of school early. At some point in the early afternoon, I went to Woodlawn Public Library, which was right next to the high school," McClain's new affidavit reads. "At around 2:30 p.m., I saw Adnan Syed enter the library. Syed and I had a conversation."
In her new testimony given this week, McClain said that Cristina Gutierrez never actually got in contact with her about speaking in court during Syed's original trial. After Syed had been convicted and sent to prison, he reached out to McClain, claiming that he remembered speaking to her the day of Lee's murder and asked McClain to respond with a written account of her day, including the conversation they allegedly had at the library.
In his cross examination, Deputy Attorney General Thiruvendran Vignarajah questioned the accuracy of McClain's memory of the day she said she spoke with Syed and asked whether she'd written her letters under duress. Though she cried during her testimony, McClain insisted that she remembered the day clearly and that she wrote the letters of her own accord.
Vignarajah also asked McClain if she was familiar with and had heard any of Serial before testifying. She said she had.
The other major half of Brown's new defense of Syed zeroes in on the cell phone records that the state used to place Syed in Leakin Park, where Lee's body was found. Last year, Brown submitted evidence claiming that the state had inappropriately used incoming cell phone records as evidence despite the fact that AT&T (who provided said records) has publicly stated that only outgoing records can be used reliably to physically place a cell phone.
This week, Gerald R. Grant Jr., a cell phone forensic analyst, was called to testify about the original testimony given by Abraham Waranowitz, the analyst who the state called to the stand in 1999. In Waranowitz's original testimony, he explained that cell phone records could be used to pinpoint a person's approximate location by looking at which cell towers a phone pinged when it made an outgoing phone call.
In a new affidavit, however, Waranowitz explains that he was not provided with the appropriate instructions about how to interpret AT&T's call records as they were presented to him. At the time, AT&T itself said that physical location information associated with incoming calls should not be considered reliable.
"If I had been made aware of this disclaimer, it would have affected my testimony," Waranowitz wrote. "I would not have affirmed the interpretation of a phone’s possible geographical location until I could ascertain the reasons and details for the disclaimer. I consider the existence of the disclaimer about incoming calls to have been critical information for me to address. I do not know why this information was not pointed out to me."
Syed's appeal continues today where the state will be allowed to call its witnesses. It is unclear when specifically Judge Martin P. Welch hand down his ruling.