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Adnan Syed enters Baltimore City Circuit Court last week. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Key witness takes the stand as Syed’s post-conviction hearing begins

Attorneys for Adnan Syed asked a Baltimore City Circuit judge on Wednesday to grant him a new trial based on the alleged incompetence of his trial attorney, as well as new evidence in the form of an alibi witness and information about cellphone records the state used to support its theory that Syed killed his high school ex-girlfriend.

The first day of the post-conviction hearing for Syed, whose case was recently revisited in the first season of the popular “Serial” podcast, saw the long-awaited testimony of Asia McClain — who now goes by Asia Chapman, her married name — a classmate of Syed’s at Woodlawn High School who said she saw him in a library near the school on the day of Hae Min Lee’s murder in 1999.

McClain testified that she wrote several letters to Adnan soon after his arrest in which she mentioned seeing him at the public library in Woodlawn on Jan. 13, 1999 and offered to share that information if it would be valuable to Syed’s case. But no one from his defense team contacted her before his trial in 2000, she said.

Because she didn’t follow Syed’s trial herself, McClain testified Wednesday that she didn’t know the state’s theory of the timeline of the day of Lee’s murder and therefore didn’t understand the significance of her knowledge of his whereabouts that afternoon. It wasn’t until she listened to “Serial” she realized her statements would contradict the state’s theory of when Lee was killed.

“I didn’t think anything I had to say was important until I listened to the podcast,” she said. “…It definitely placed a greater weight on my heart, so to speak.”

McClain, who laughed and joked at times throughout her testimony Wednesday, also said that she had been discouraged from getting involved with the case during a prior telephone conversation with prosecutor Kevin Urick, in which she said Urick told her the evidence that Syed “killed that girl” was incontrovertible.

Syed stoic

Syed exchanged a few words with his attorneys over the course of Wednesday’s proceedings, but remained generally impassive in front of the full courtroom, which included Sarah Koenig, the host of “Serial,” and dozens of members of the press and public.

Wednesday’s testimony also focused heavily on the competence of Cristina Gutierrez, Syed’s now-deceased trial attorney.

C. Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney, told retired Judge Martin P. Welch that Gutierrez’s failure to interview McClain as a potential alibi witness amounts to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001 and died in 2004 after years of struggling with health problems, witnesses testified.

“She was unable to manage her cases, her health was failing, she was struggling with her family life, which was in turmoil, and her business — her law practice — was becoming unwound,” said Brown, of Brown & Nieto in Baltimore.

Several defense witnesses who were friends or acquaintances of Gutierrez testified at the post-conviction proceeding that she had been a hardworking, impressive attorney during her early career, but that as her physical health declined, her ability to handle her caseload began to fall short.

Phil Dantes, a Towson attorney who represented Gutierrez during a character committee hearing, taught her in a CLE course and maintained a friendly professional relationship with her, said that during the mid-to-late 1990s, stress began to take its toll on her performance in the courtroom.

“Her questioning wasn’t crisp; her storytelling wasn’t good,” he said, a sharp contrast to her early command as an attorney.

Strategic decision

Another witness, William Kanwisher, who worked as an associate in Gutierrez’s firm from 1997 to 1999, testified that she began passing cases on to other attorneys more frequently, sometimes right before a deadline to file a motion or a trial date was approaching .

“She was, during that period of time, she was hard to deal with,” said Kanwisher, who now works in the federal office of the public defender. “Cases were handed off late in the process. There were significant money issues within the firm itself. … The general finances of her practice were extremely problematic.”

Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah said Wednesday that the defense had not proved that Gutierrez’s failure to call McClain during the trial was anything more than a valid strategic decision by a defense attorney.

“Mr. Syed was convicted not because of Ms. Gutierrez’s lack of efforts or tactical decisions; he was convicted for two reasons: the overwhelming evidence, which swamped and dwarfed the vigorous defense by Ms. Gutierrez; and Mr. Syed was convicted because he did it,” Vignarajah said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday and conclude Friday.