(Recasts with hearing, changes byline, dateline, conflict on age)
By Lacey Johnson
ANNAPOLIS, Md., June 8 (Reuters) - A Maryland man convicted of murder in a case featured on the 2014 “Serial” podcast was adequately represented by his original lawyer, a prosecutor argued on Thursday in an appeal of a judge’s decision to throw out the conviction.
Adnan Syed, 37, who is serving a life sentence for strangling his former girlfriend in 1999, was granted a new trial in June 2016. Maryland’s attorney general appealed the decision.
Prosecutor Thiruvendran Vignarajah on Thursday told the three-judge panel of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that the judge erred in ordering a new trial since Syed’s lawyer had “meticulously and vigorously investigated” his case.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin Welch had ruled that Syed’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, should have cross-examined a witness about the reliability of cellphone tower evidence.
Gutierrez, who died in 2004, agreed to be disbarred by the state’s highest court in 2001 rather than face complaints filed with the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission. She said at the time that she could no longer practice because of ill health.
Syed’s current attorney, Justin Brown, told the panel that prosecutors in his trial had removed a key disclaimer attached to phone records that helped to convict Syed.
“You’ve got this document that says those incoming phone calls are not reliable,“ Brown said. ”That was the crux of the state’s case.”
Vignarajah said defense attorneys should have raised the argument in an earlier appeal.
Brown told judges that Gutierrez also failed to contact a potential alibi witness, an argument that Welch dismissed last year.
The potential witness, Asia McClain Chapman, testified in 2016 that she and Syed were together at the time when prosecutors said the murder occurred. She said no one contacted her to provide an alibi at Syed’s trial.
More than 60 people packed the courtroom for Thursday’s hearing. Syed remains in prison and was not present.
The “Serial” podcast on Syed’s case, released by public radio station WBEZ in Chicago, has been downloaded millions of times.
It raised questions about testimony from an acquaintance of Syed, who had claimed Syed told him he planned to kill Lee and needed his help after the murder, and about phone calls that linked Syed to the crime.
Rabia Chaudry, an activist and friend of Syed, said the publicity from the podcast helped raise about $700,000 for legal fees.
The court will issue a written opinion on the case. The ruling could go to the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Trott)