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Witness Testimony Would Have Been 'Gamechanger' for 'Serial's' Adnan Syed: Expert

by Erik Ortiz and Katie Wall /  / Updated 

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BALTIMORE — An alibi witness who never testified during the 2000 trial of Adnan Syed, the subject of the popular podcast "Serial," would have been a "gamechanger" in the convicted murderer's case, an expert said Friday.

David Irwin, a former prosecutor, testified during Syed's post-conviction hearing in support of the defense's argument that witness Asia McClain, now named Chapman, should have been called — and may have helped sway jurors in his favor.

Chapman claims she was in the library after school with Syed when their high school classmate, Hae Min Lee, was killed on Jan. 18, 1999.

Maryland prosecutors during the initial trial said Syed strangled Lee, his ex-girlfriend, after she began dating someone new, and dumped her body in a park.

Related: Alibi Witness Testifies in 'Serial' Subject's Retrial Hearing

Syed won a post-conviction hearing — and now a judge will determine whether he is owed a retrial because of his then-counsel's supposed failures, such as not calling Chapman as a witness.

As part of Syed's retrial hearing, Chapman this week was called to explain the circumstances surrounding what happened more than 16 years ago.

On Thursday, despite two letters and an affidavit asserting that she, along with two others, talked to Syed at the library, Chapman testified that former defense lawyer Cristina Gutierrez failed to contact her.

Adnan Syed enters Courthouse East in Baltimore prior to a hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in Baltimore.Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun via AP

Irwin said he reviewed Chapman's 1999 letters as "very intelligent, well-spoken" and "powerfully credible."

He added that he "can't imagine" why Gutierrez did not contact Chapman to at least investigate her recollection of talking to Syed at the library on the day of the murder.

Evidence from Gutierrez's file shows that she was aware of Chapman's offer to serve as an alibi witness.

Irwin's testimony is part of the defense's strategy to show that Gutierrez failed Syed in his original trial.

Related: 'Serial' Star in Court for Hearing That Could Lead to Retrial

"Her performance, sadly, was well below the limit required," said Irwin of Gutierrez, who died in 2004. It has been widely reported that she was already in deteriorating health while representing Syed in 2000.

The prosecution, led by state's Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, argued in opening statements that Gutierrez was under no obligation to call Chapman as an alibi witness, and that there may have been a strategy behind her decision.

But Irwin strongly disagreed, saying that defense attorneys are required to at least contact and investigate any potential alibis.

Syed, now 34, has maintained his innocence. He said he was at the library, then had track practice around the time of Lee's disappearance and death.

In earlier testimony, defense investigator Sean Gordon said he called 41 of the 83 names on the original defense witness list and found that only four of the names were ever contacted by Gutierrez.

None were asked to serve as an alibi witness, according to Gordon. Chapman, too, was not included on that witness list.

But Vignarajah grilled Gordon on his testimony, showing memos from Gutierrez's investigator and associates that the defense did call and sought to personally serve subpoenas to Syed's track teammates.

Gordon admitted that he did not contact Gutierrez's associates listed on the memo to verify.

The defense on Friday also called on librarian Michelle Hamiel of the Woodlawn Public Library to verify that the library in 1999 did have security cameras as Chapman claimed. But Hamiel said there would have been no evidence of Syed there since the tapes were recycled every month.

Vignarajah said there were no records at all of cameras even being installed at the library until February 2000.

"No. We didn't keep records," Hamiel shot back.

The new hearing has given the public its first glimpse of Syed since "Serial" made him a household name in the fall of 2014. He was again in court Friday, and smiled and waved to his family despite his shackled wrists.

The "Serial" podcast, which has been downloaded more than 68 million times, has posted updates about the hearing, which began Wednesday. The hearing was originally slated to last three days, but after testimony continued past 5 p.m. Friday, Judge Martin P. Welch announced that court would reconvene Monday for a fourth day.

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