Last week I attended the post-conviction hearing of Adnan Syed in Baltimore, Maryland. (I wrote about it for The Dean's Report.) Syed, the subject of the immensely popular Serial podcast, is getting another chance for a new trial after being convicted in 2000 of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in January 1999. The five day court proceeding, included many notable quotes. These are some of my most memorable:
Phil Dantes (fmr friend & attorney for Cristina Gutierrez):
- On Cristina Guitierrez, “not appearing to be in control” & “looked like she was losing it.”
* BOTH STATEMENTS were struck from the record
Asia McLain (‘The Alibi’) thought former prosecutor, Kevin Urick, would have worn a “white hat”
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah cross-examining Librarian, Michelle Hamiel:
- Question: “Would it surprise you to learn the library has no records of cameras being installed until February 2000?”
- Answer: “No. We didn’t keep records.”
Asia McLain on when she realized the time period in library was significant: “(it) placed greater weight on my heart”
Asia McLain on reason for testifying, “(so) justice could be fairly evaluated”
Justin Brown, Defense Attorney, on Security Officer Steve testifying anonymously: “The public has a right to see witnesses and have witnesses identify themselves”
Christopher Nieto, Defense Attorney, referred to Deputy AG Vignarajah’s staff as a “legion of minions.”
Agent Chad Fitzgerald, State cell phone expert, on cross-examination by Justin Brown:
- “it’s offensive that you handed me manipulated evidence”
- In response to whether he worked all weekend on the case, “don’t flatter yourself.”
Criminal Defense Attorney Expert, David Irwin to Deputy AG Vignarajah on cross-examination:
- “You’re begging the world to think she (Gutierrez) had a strategy……(there was) no analysis, no strategy”
Christopher Nieto cross-examining Security Officer Steve:
- Question: “Can you say for certain whether Mr. Syed was in the library (on January 13, 1999)?”
- Answer: “No.” (this was in complete contradiction to his direct testimony)
Justin Brown, closing statement:
- “I am proud to represent this man and stand beside him in his defense.”
- “I’ve been walking in her (Gutierrez) footsteps for 7 years.”
- On Gutierrez, “She wanted to win, she tried to win, she was a fighter BUT there was something wrong….too many signals, too many red flags.”
- On Asia McClain, “the diamond slipped through the cracks.”
- “No defense attorney can defend not contacting an alibi witness.”
Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, closing statement:
- “State’s responsibility is to do justice, not to bend to what’s fashionable.”
- “what is popular is not always just.”
- submits Gutierrez thought “Asia McClain is not a weapon for the defense, it is a weakness.”
- Referring to Adnan Syed’s case as “a fight that should not end in victory.”
Andrea Seabrook, journalist, from inside the press room……..
- “I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. All I do is drink and write.”
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Pulling up to the mosque I didn’t know what to expect but I dressed for the occasion…..I guess??? I wore what I’d wear to temple, a long salwar top and jeans. But was this appropriate for a community briefing on the post-conviction hearing for the now infamous anti-hero of the "Serial" podcast, Adnan Syed?
A room filled with brown people who looked like me immediately brought a sense of comfort. Rabia Chaudry, an attorney as well as Adnan Syed’s advocate and family friend, had just started speaking. “For 17 years Adnan has maintained his innocence….” her voice being broken by tears. It struck me that after all this time a few words about Adnan so quickly moved her. I had gotten to know Rabia a bit over the past year – she was tough, smart, confident and clearly, human.
But Syed had much more than this packed room of supporters, probably tens of thousands more outside these mosque doors. Was I one of them? Standing in the crowded basement of adults and children adorned in #FreeAdnan t-shirts…..not exactly.
I came to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Adnan Syed’s second post-conviction hearing. Syed was the subject of the phenomenally popular Serial podcast that reexamined his conviction for murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. After listening to Serial, I attempted to interview the trial prosecutor, Kevin Urick, in January 2015, but he stood me up. I then contacted Rabia along with Susan Simpson, an attorney and blogger who was instrumental in getting Syed ‘another bite at the apple’ as we say. We proceeded to do three one-hour Serial ‘specials’ dissecting different aspects of Syed’s case for MSNBC.com.
Still, I do not know whether Syed is innocent of this crime. As a criminal defense attorney I think about guilt versus innocence all day, every day. But with Syed here is what I know: this kid got screwed from every single facet of the criminal justice system from the police to the prosecutor to his lawyer and even the trial Judge. I’ve read the trial transcripts, reviewed some of the evidence, spoke to many experts and bottom line, Syed did not receive a fair trial. Full stop.
So when Syed got another chance at a new trial through a second post-conviction hearing I knew I couldn’t miss it. Now that I was peripherally acquainted with the significant parties, now that I knew way too many flaws in the process I didn’t just want to read about it. I had to witness it all unfold for myself.
What exactly was I going to do there? I was not asked to go for television purposes, and although I’m a renowned trial-junkie in my New York City courthouse was I really going to spend money on travel to just sit and watch this hearing? And just not work?
I concocted a way to be useful to the masses who couldn’t attend but who would be glued to social media for updates. I’d tweet, do video interviews and periscope, (didn’t even know what that was until boarding the train for Baltimore whereupon I accidentally buttscoped twitter, ooops!). Having access to Rabia, Susan and perhaps others who would go on camera during the court breaks may allow me to provide a novel service. I was hoping…..
The first day of the hearing I walked into the courthouse with Rabia but when I entered the press room and she walked down the hall our paths diverged more than logistically. I wasn’t there as a member of #TeamAdnan; I didn’t sit with Rabia, the family, Susan and other supporters; I was going to sit with the press.
Walking into the press room was equal parts thrilling and terrifying. Of course the first person I saw was Sarah Koenig. Koenig who hosts "Serial" was, to me, the singular reason Syed got this far. I’ve said this before and I will say it again – there is no Justice without exposure. And that is the remarkable feat that Sarah Koenig accomplished for Adnan Syed.
The press room was filled with reporters; real ones, not the pseudo lawyer/journo that I was attempting to be. And despite how intimidating that was, I did what I always do. I manufacture confidence. I’m an experienced trial attorney, I’ve been working in news for a while too, I could do this.
With the group of reporters, we march into the courtroom for the grand entrance of Syed; no one has seen recent pictures of him so there was some curiosity. A bit after 930am a door in the back of the courtroom swings open and Syed enters flanked by officers. He’s wearing light blue prison attire, a kufi on his head donning a long beard – and he is HUGE. Seriously. BIG. Like prison jacked lifting weights in the yard BIG. After that moment I ceased to pay much attention to him, unlike many others. Maybe that’s the lawyer side of me. I was fascinated with the attorneys, the witnesses, the entire process; but what “the defendant” was doing was not relevant. During the hearing his role appeared minimal at best. Strange….almost like being a guest in your own home.
Getting into the groove of watching testimony, then sprinting to the press room to tweet was quite daunting, especially because coffee was initially banned. Balancing what tidbits from court needed immediate tweeting versus what was better left for interviews required circus like juggling. The one constant in the frenzied week was the comradery of the press room. Every reporter I met was gracious in sharing information, helping this outsider and supporting my endeavor – it was astounding. Lawyers don’t play as nice.
The quality of reporting challenged me every minute to raise my game; the effort was thoroughly exhilarating. Because there is no tired, there is no hungry, there is no limit when you feel absolute joy in doing good work. Still it was not lost on me that my self-satisfaction sprung from a young couple’s tragic plight.
I am fortunate to have a small, albeit undefined, role in this particular pursuit of justice. Yes, I am a lawyer. Sometimes, I am a journalist. And for a week in Baltimore I was simply, the messenger.
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Through the blizzard armed with 3,000 pages of transcripts, maps and cell phone records, I headed out to meet Kevin Urick, one of the prosecutors from the Adnan Syed case. If you are in the 1 percent of the universe that does not recognize those names, I am referring to “Serial.” a 12 episode podcast that reexamines the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed, who was convicted of Lee’s murder, is currently serving a life sentence.
From the very beginning I hated “Serial.” Hated it! I despised how Sarah Koenig (host/producer) was blaming the defense attorney within 35 minutes of the first episode. The epitome of ‘liberal media bias’ – with utter disbelief in her voice, Koenig informs the listeners that after a six week trial the jury returned a verdict within two hours. Big Whoop. That happens ALL the time. A reporter wouldn’t know that, thus, delivering such information was irresponsible without collecting data on the frequency of fast verdicts.
While I grew skeptical of the State’s case as well as the defense Syed received, I still remained neutral. I was on episode six at that point.
Then Mr. Urick gave an interview to The Intercept. But it wasn’t the whole story. I wanted that from Mr. Urick – on camera, in depth. I left him messages explaining that since I was a former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney, I was in a unique position to understand his. He returned my call.
We spoke several times, emailed dozens - we had a crew, a location, it was all set in stone way in advance. And then he cancelled. Sure he had a lame reason but he cancelled with a specific note that he would not reschedule. Why?
My feeling is that when I told him I had read the trial transcripts he grew fearful of what I discovered. That would be true. But there was more.
Certainly Koenig’s uncovering of inconsistencies led me to investigate deeper but it also led me to Susan Simpson. Susan is a brilliant young lawyer who through her blog, The View From LL2, dissects key pieces of evidence from Syed’s trial. Actually, no. That’s the problem. Susan was looking at materials that were not admitted at trial but should have been. Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s who was the impetus for “Serial,” has facilitated Susan’s quest and now she is doing the same for me.
Analyzing what I was reading frightened me. I became baffled by the call log, the testimony, the maps. What I was looking at simply could not be true. I will admit I wanted to confirm that Syed was rightfully found guilty. I always want to believe that the system works because…..that’s where I live.
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice, that guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence and that special precautions are taken to prevent and to rectify the conviction of innocent persons.” (Rule 3.8, The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct). I remember carrying those words on a piece of paper into my first interview at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
To me, being a ‘minister of justice’ always meant doing the just thing. My entire life, both personally and professionally, I decide everything on a case-by-case basis. I don’t do the party line. Sometimes I’m with the prosecution, sometimes I’m with the defense. My slogan is “fairness” – I don’t care who ends up in jail, as long as they got there the right way.
What I loved about being a prosecutor is that if the evidence wasn’t there, if the cops screwed up, if there was extreme mitigation, you dismiss the charges. Why would a prosecutor sacrifice his job, his license, his livelihood, by falsifying a case? Perhaps that was the question Urick knew I would ask.
Imagine writing a script then calling central casting for the ideal villain to play the main character. The prosecution (Urick’s co-prosecutor was Kathleen Murphy) constructed a narrative and then orchestrated Syed’s role in it. We now know that to be true because the prosecutors, for instance,
- Hid from the defense that Jay was given a free lawyer; (would’ve been easy to have her court appointed)
- Arranged an invalid guilty plea for Jay and allowed for an alternative plea condition outside of what was contained in the plea agreement;
- Didn’t test Syed’s phone to determine that it’s easily capable of misdialing; (they sure could have)
- Improperly failed to mention the entire call log to the jury; of the 24 calls on Syed’s phone between 10:45am-8:05pm only 6 calls were possibly in the range of where the prosecution places the phone;
- Didn’t introduce location of 3:32pm Nisha call at trial;
- Didn’t reveal that the actual call which fits Nisha’s memory; that occurred on February 14, 1999, 7:17pm for approximately 10 minutes in the vicinity of the porn store; (according to cell phone records)
- Inaccurately conveyed to the jury that the 5:14pm phone call was Syed calling his voicemail when it was actually someone leaving a voicemail; (from AT&T records the police obtained)
- Failed to tell jury that only outgoing calls are reliable for location status NOT incoming (like the 7:09pm and 7:16pm that were allegedly places phone in Leakin Park while the body was being buried); (from AT&T records the police obtained)
I think you get the idea. There is so much more that Susan Simpson and Rabia Chaudry are working on and the world needs to hear all of it. I no longer have the confidence in the courts to do their job so perhaps exposing the real evidence – all of it – is what needs to be done. So that is what we are going to do…...
As for Kevin Urick, I understand why you stood me up. Really, it’s okay. But I gave you a shot to give your side of the story. Now just be prepared for what’s coming next because the gloves – are – off.
Seema Iyer is a criminal defense & civil rights attorney with her own lawfirm in NYC. She hosts the weekly legal show "The Docket" on Shift by MSNBC.com. Seema also appears frequently on television as a legal analyst. Follow her on Twitter @seemaiyeresq
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