By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The Baltimore man whose conviction for a 1999 murder was put into question by the popular podcast "Serial" was calm when he was told the victim was missing, a witness testified at a court hearing on Thursday.
Asia McClain Chapman, a high school classmate of Adnan Syed, who is serving a life term for the murder and is seeking a retrial, said she spoke with him at a library for about 20 minutes and told him that his ex-girlfriend had disappeared.
“It’s cool. I just want her to be happy,” she said Syed told her, noting that he seemed "calm."
During the hearing at Baltimore City Circuit Court, McClain broke down as she recalled learning that the girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, 18, had been murdered.
"I could not reconcile the demeanor” of Syed with that of a murderer, she said under cross examination. McClain Chapman said she was never contacted to provide a possible alibi at his initial trial.
Syed, 35, was convicted in 2000 of the murder. The slaying was the subject of the podcast "Serial" which began in October 2014, which was released by public radio station WBEZ in Chicago.
The podcast raised doubts about Syed's conviction and has been downloaded tens of millions of times. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals returned the case to Baltimore City Circuit Court last year for post-conviction proceedings.
The hearing will weigh potential evidence that was not used in previous proceedings or may have been misinterpreted, and the court could order a new trial.
McClain Chapman said she and a friend visited Syed’s family home in the days after the killing to share information that might prove helpful to his case.
She repeated earlier testimony that relatives said that Syed was having trouble recalling his exact whereabouts between getting out of school and going to a mosque the day of the murder.
Prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah pressed McClain Chapman about her recollection of events, asking at one point, "Is it possible that you're mixing up your memory?"
He also focused on two letters she wrote to Syed after he had been arrested. In one of them, shown on a screen in the courtroom, she wrote, “I have reason to believe in your innocence.”
The prosecutor also wanted to know if Syed had helped McClain write a second letter which contained details of the case. She said he had not.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)