Breaking News Emails
Podcast star and convicted killer Adnan Syed could get a fresh chance to clear his name when he returns to court this week for a post-conviction hearing — one that leaves the fate of a new trial hanging in the balance.
Syed, 35, was the subject of the first season of the wildly popular podcast, "Serial," which dove into the question of his innocence in the 1999 murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
Syed and Lee were seniors at the same Baltimore high school. Prosecutors claimed that after Lee began dating someone new, Syed strangled her in a fit of rage, then dumped her body in the woods.
But the podcast, which went live in the fall of 2014 and has been downloaded more than 68 million times, raised doubts about whether he committed the crime. His defense has now stitched together new evidence, and the Court of Special Appeals last year agreed he should have a post-conviction hearing, which will be held Wednesday through Friday, to determine if he's owed a retrial.
What new evidence will his lawyers present?
The hearing in Baltimore City Circuit Court will center around two key topics: a potential new alibi witness and reexamination of cellphone evidence.
The witness, classmate Asia McClain, has said in an affidavit that she was in the library with Syed at the time Lee was killed. McClain was never called as a witness during Syed's initial trial, and claimed in an affidavit last year that the lead prosecutor convinced her to not take the stand.
Cellphone evidence also played a part in putting away Syed. The prosecution used cellphone records to indicate he was in the vicinity of the park where Lee's body was found.
Breaking News Emails
But Syed's defense never called into question that data, which cellphone carrier AT&T had said was only good for determining where outgoing calls were coming from — not incoming calls.
Two important calls received on Syed's phone were incoming, which meant his general location around the time of Lee's disappearance could not be verified.
Ultimately, Syed's new attorney, C. Justin Brown, is expected to make the case that the young man did not get a fair trial because McClain was not called to testify and the cellular evidence should have been considered inadmissible.
What else is Syed's defense expected to bring up?
Fans of "Serial" are familiar with how Syed's attorney at the time, Cristina Gutierrez, missed important opportunities that could have helped his case, such as calling McClain as a witness and the questionable cellphone evidence.
The hearing is expected to examine whether Gutierrez, who died in 2004, provided ineffective counsel.
What helped to convict Syed during his 2000 trial?
State prosecutors used testimony from a mutual friend, Jay Wilds, to help corroborate the cellphone evidence indicating where Syed had supposedly been.
Lee disappeared after a regular school day. Syed, while he wasn't able to recall his entire schedule that January day, said he went to the library to check his email and then had track practice.
Wilds had actually borrowed both Syed's car and phone for part of the day, and in shifting stories told police that Syed admitted to killing Lee, showed him her body in the parking lot of a Best Buy, and then helped Syed to bury her in the woods.
There was no eyewitness testimony or physical evidence from the scene linking Syed to the crime. Wilds served no prison time after testifying against Syed.
Who will testify for the prosecution?
The Maryland Attorney General's Office is expected to call on William "Billy" Martin, an expert on criminal defense who has represented NFL quarterback Michael Vick and various politicians in legal trouble, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The newspaper said the defense will also call an FBI special agent with experience during the Boston Marathon to help reinforce the use of the cellphone evidence.
Will we hear from Syed at the hearing?
He is expected to attend, although it's not immediately clear whether he will take the stand. He did not testify during his trial.
"I would not be surprised if Adnan Syed testifies because there may be information that only he has and no one else can provide," said Douglas Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who represented Syed during his initial bail hearing in 1999. (Colbert was not part of the Gutierrez-led defense team.)
What possible outcomes could happen from the hearing?
The judge could decide to grant Syed a new trial, but even that could be delayed if the Maryland Attorney General's Office chooses to appeal the decision.
The judge could also deny a new trial, which Syed's attorneys could decide to appeal — punting the case to other appeals courts and dragging it on even longer.
How long is anybody's guess, but Colbert told NBC News that Syed is used to playing the waiting game.
"For Adnan Syed, who’s been in prison for 17 years since he was 17, time is not an issue for him if he’s able to continue to get judicial review and have the chance to keep his case alive," Colbert said. "It is extraordinary to be granted this chance at another hearing, and the interest of whether justice is being served is at stake."