New defense lawyer argues that failures of prior attorney led to conviction in 1999 murder of Syed's ex-girlfriend

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Credit: Courtesy of Yusuf Syed/AP Photo

According to his attorneys, Adnan Syed, the subject of the Serial podcast, deserves a new trial because an albi witness says she saw him at the library at the time of an alleged 1999 murder for which he was convicted.

“The single most important piece of evidence that could have helped that man slipped through the cracks,” Syed’s attorney C. Justin Brown said today in a Baltimore courtroom. Syed, 35, is seeking a new trial to overturn his conviction for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, 18.

Brown called the testimony of witness Asia McClain a “missing piece of the puzzle.” He blamed the “human error” of Syed’s original defense attorney, the now-deceased Christina Gutierrez, for failing to contact McClain and call her as a witness in the original trial.

That claim was countered by the prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, who said, “Ms. Gutierrez took very seriously an alibi witness, it is reflected in her notes and documents. Perhaps the witness was not a reliable witness, perhaps a risky witness.”

“A jury convicted Mr. Syed of the premeditated murder of Hae Min Lee,” Vignarajah added. “It was established beyond a reasonable doubt that he strangled her with his bare hands – an 18-year-old girl with whom he had a relationship. That body was left to rot, it was discovered and uncovered.”

“Mr. Syed received a fair trial,” Vignarajah concluded.

Syed, who has been serving a life sentence despite maintaining his innocence, entered court today wearing a black beard and a knit gray-and-white cap. The courtroom was packed with family members of Lee and Syed, as well as a large media corps drawn to the case by the podcast, in which reporter Sarah Koenig investigated Lee’s death and raised doubts about Syed’s guilt.

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Friend of Syed’s Defense Attorney: ‘She Was Starting to Lose It’

Brown’s effort to win a new trial for Syed is based on two arguments. The first is that Gutierrez was so physically and mentally incapacitated by illness during the time she represented Syed that she overlooked McClain as an alibi witness. The second is their claim that Gutierrez failed to tell jurors that cellphone records purporting to place Syed in the area where Lee was buried was not reliable.

A sought-after attorney and public defender in her prime, Guitierrez “was zealous, she worked her butt off,” attorney Phil Dante, a friend of hers for 40 years, said on the stand when called as part of Syed’s case.

But by the mid 1990’s, Dante said, he had noticed a change in Gutierrez. “The questioning was confusing, she looked like she had a high level of anxiety, she didn’t seem in control,” he said. “It looked to me like she was starting to lose it.”

Dante eventually represented Gutierrez in 2001 before a commission where she faced allegations of misconduct lodged by 20 former clients; Gutierrez was later disbarred.

At that time, Dante said, “She was blind in one eye, she didn’t walk, she was lying on the sofa of her parents’ home.”

Was Gutierrez a great attorney, Vignarajah asked?

“Everybody wanted her,” Dante replied.

But when Vignarajah suggested that her health was not failing, Dante countered, “She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t drive, she couldn’t see. It’s kind of hard to practice law.” This was around 1995, he said, several years before the Syed case reached trial.

A second attorney, William Kanwisher, testified that he worked with Guitierrez in 1994 and 1995. “Over that 20-month period I saw her energy decrease, her focus decrease. I saw her in pain, grimacing, holding her abdomen and reluctance to acknowledge it,” he said.

Asked why Guitierrez might have omitted McClain from a witness list in Syed’s case, Kanwisher replied: “I don’t see a tactical reason why she would have done that. The possibility exists she may have forgotten or not contacted the witness.”

Pushed further by defense attorney Christopher Nieto, Brown’s colleague, who asked, “What would you think if the defendant had a name, address, contact information and did not contact that witness?,” Kanwisher said: “I wouldn’t understand it. Zealous advocacy requires investigation. There is no tactical reason not to do it.”

Reporting by DIANE HERBST