Most every morning of his hearing for a new trial, Adnan Syed, his hands and legs shackled, entered a Baltimore courtroom with a grim expression. But Tuesday morning, as Syed headed to his customary seat at the defense table, he smiled broadly and waved subtly at his younger brother Yusuf sitting in the courtroom’s front row.
“I think he is more hopeful than I have seen him since I first met him seven years ago,” said Syed’s attorney C. Justin Brown, following Tuesday afternoon’s conclusion of his client’s five-day post-conviction hearing.
“I could see it on his face when he looked back at me and smiled,” Yusuf tells PEOPLE. “It makes me feel even more hopeful.”
A retired judge, Martin Welch, will now decide with a written opinion if Syed, whose conviction for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend is the subject of the popular podcast Serial, will have a new trial. It’s not known how long Welch will take before issuing his opinion.
During Tuesday’s five-plus hours of closing arguments by Brown and a Maryland prosecutor, Syed wrote out a statement in spite of the shackles constraining his wrists.
“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to present new evidence before the court,” he wrote in the statement, read aloud by Brown late Tuesday afternoon. “I intend to keep fighting to prove my innocence.”
Victim’s Family: Hearing Reopens ‘Wounds Few Can Imagine’
Syed was convicted of murdering his ex girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999, when both were high school seniors. Lee’s family had remained silent after Syed’s 2000 conviction until last week, when they’ve since spoken out twice.
They have affirmed their belief that Syed murdered Hae Min and have said the hearing has been extradordinarly painful, reopening ‘wounds few can imagine’.
The pain of their daughter’s murder and questions about Syed’s guilt were brought to the public’s attention through Serial, a 2014 podcast made by journalist Sarah Koenig. Brown credits Serial for breathing life into Syed’s case.
“As a result of Serial, more information became available to us,” said Brown, “more information than we otherwise may not have gotten.
“This might have been the first ever open source case,” he said. “All the materials from the case are out there and people from all over the country are investigating this case, I had thousands of investigators all over the country helping us.”
Syed’s Current Attorneys Say Former Attorney Made ‘Significant’ Mistake
During his 2000 trial, Syed was represented by Christina Gutierrez, who is now deceased. Brown says Gutierrez’s representation was substandard, and that this is grounds for a new trial.
“Basically we have to prove that the defense attorney, Christina Gutierrez, made a mistake and number two, we have to prove that mistake was significant,” he told reporters gathered in his office.
“I feel the hearing went well for us, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” he said “We fought hard for our client, we did everything we possibly could for our client to try to succeed.”
Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah believes that he has persuaded Welch that a jury’s decision to convict Syed 16 years ago should stand, saying that Syed “received a vigorous, complete defense” at his original trial, he told reporters outside the courthouse this afternoon.
“The state is confident it put on the case it needed to,” Vignarajah said.
Syed’s Current Lawyers Say Original Lawyers Neglected to Call Potential Alibi Witness
Brown spent the morning going over the evidence he had presented to Welch in previously in the hearing, including testimony from potential alibi witness Asia McClain. At the time of the murder, she was a high school classmate of Syed’s who says she was with Syed at the time prosecutors had said he murdered Lee.
“At the end of the day, a mistake was made not to talk to an alibi witness that could have turned this trial around,” Brown said. He added: “The case law is clear. Essentially you must investigate an alibi witness.”
State Witness From Original Trial Recants Testimony About Cell Phone Records
Brown also said cell phone records of two incoming calls used to place Syed near Leakin Park, where Lee’s body was found buried in a shallow grave, were improperly used at his trial. According to an AT&T fax cover sheet, the company said that incoming calls are not a reliable means to pinpoint someone’s location.
According to Syed’s current defense, that cover sheet was overlooked not only by Gutierrez, Syed’s attorney, but by the government’s own cell phone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, an AT&T engineer who never saw the fax cover sheet.
Still, Waranowitz’s testimony at trial helped convict Syed, Brown noted. Brown said that the calls were the only piece of evidence that corroborated the account of Jay Wilds, the state’s star witness, who said he buried Lee in the park with Syed that night.
Once Brown contacted Waranowitz last fall and pointed out the fax cover sheet warning, Waranowitz recanted his testimony in a sworn affidavit.
Brown said Tuesday morning that Waranowitz had flown from to Baltimore on Monday to testify for the defense, but Welch, the judge, instead asked that another affidavit be supplied. “It is something [Abe] feels very badly about,” Brown said, referring to Waranowitz’s 2000 testimony.
Vignarajah spent hours attempting to poke holes in Brown’s arguments. He said Gutierrez did not contact McClain out of a strategy to help Syed. He theorized that Gutierrez chose not to use McClain as an alibi witness because to do so would be “not credible and risky.”
Despite Waranowitz giving two sworn affidavits recanting his 2000 testimony, Vignarajah said Waranowitz’s conclusions at trial were accurate, based on the testimony of an FBI cell phone expert called by Vignarajah.