by Jayson Hawkins
There are thousands of people incarcerated in America who are factually innocent. Until September of 2022, Adnan Syed was one of them. And, while we celebrate his freedom after it was wrongfully denied him for over 20 years, the fact that so many innocents remain behind bars is tragic. We must additionally take notice that his success was not the result of a just system. Neither was it the product of hard work or media attention, though he had both things going for him. Adnan Syed was simply fortunate.
Syed was a teenager when his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, was murdered in 1999. Notes in the trial record point to two other men as potential suspects, both of them viable. Both the other men had criminal records, including one for sexual assault. One of them actually threatened to kill Lee. Neither of these leads was presented as the Constitution demands to Syed’s defense attorney. Prosecutors buried the leads and convicted him. He was sentenced to life plus 30 years.
That part of the story is common enough. Throw a rock in prison, and you are likely to hit on a similar story. Syed’s became more remarkable when the hit podcast Serial picked up his case. Sarah Koenig, Serial’s host, brought his case much needed media attention worldwide by documenting the system’s failures. She told the world how Syed’s attorney neglected to call a crucial alibi witness. His defense also failed to defend him against cellphone location records that were clearly marked with a cover sheet stating, “Any incoming calls will NOT be reliable information for location,” despite those same records being used to bolster the prosecution’s case for his whereabouts as his ex-girlfriend’s body was alleged buried.
Syed was also fortunate to have attorneys 10 years after his conviction and again in 2014. The appeals that the attorneys filed cited the unreliable cellphone evidence and the shoddy work of his trial counsel. Nevertheless, it was not the compelling arguments of his appellate attorneys, the pleas of the fierce legion of advocates who had heard of his case and supported him, or the nature of a system designed to prevent the innocent from being convicted and serving far too much time that make him remarkable.
Syed was most fortunate because Maryland’s legislators passed a law that permit people who had been convicted as teenagers and served more than 20 years to apply for a shortened sentence. His fortune bordered on miraculous when his own petition under the new law, having failed everywhere else, landed in front of Becky Feldman, a former public defender who had been appointed to lead the prosecutor’s resentencing unit. Feldman reexamined the entire case and dug up the long buried exculpatory evidence.
The system is designed for “finality over accuracy,” says Daniel Medwed in his new book, Barred: Why the Innocent Can’t Get Out of Prison. At any point in the years between the murder and Syed’s application for sentence reduction, the prosecutors could have seen the same evidence Becky Feldman did. They must have. Instead, they used procedure to block him by claiming he failed to raise arguments at the appropriate time. All his other arguments, they said, were inconsequential when compared to the “overwhelming evidence of his guilt.” Prosecutors in his trial now admit they had “overwhelming cause for concern.” What changed?
At one point, Syed had managed to get his conviction overturned and a new trial set when the Baltimore City Circuit Court vacated the conviction. That court cited ineffective assistance of counsel. The prosecutors fought the reversal past the Maryland Court of Special
Appeals despite it all and won in Maryland’s highest court in 2019, even as the court agreed that his trial counsel was “deficient in failing to investigate the alibi witness.” They believed his alibi would not have provided a significant enough testimony to likely change the outcome. Likewise, the court decided, it was Syed who was deficient for not bringing up the cell tower location information at the proper time, and they barred it from being considered. Both their points rest on a nearly impossible hurdle called the Strickland test, in which a defendant must show not only that their attorney’s performance fell below the accepted professional standard but also that the failure changed the outcome of the trial. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The alibi would have testified that she saw Syed in the library at the time prosecutors accused him of murdering Lee. Remarkably, the highest court in Maryland concluded those two problems for the prosecution were not likely to have changed a single one of the jurors’ minds.
In 2018, Reason’s C. J. Ciaramella wrote, “The criminal justice system places great value on finality, and there are a multitude of procedural hoops, unforgiving deadlines, and burdens of proof for inmates to meet when appealing a sentence” Strickland is an example of that burden, one in which reasonable doubt has shifted to the prisoner. Ciaramella went on to say, “Add in recalcitrant district attorney offices that often oppose DNA testing and introduction of new evidence that could lead to exonerations, and it’s a small miracle when anyone wins.” Ciaramella had been writing of Syed’s success in 2018 in overturning his case. Prosecutors, with the same access to his records Becky Feldman possessed, continued to fight, claiming he had not met his burden. It is rather prophetic that DNA would later have a say in whether he would face trial again.
As it turns out, after prosecutors spent more than 20 years subjecting an innocent man to the horrors of imprisonment and after the highest court in the land refused to even listen to his pleas, it was DNA evidence from Lee’s shoes that excluded him as the perpetrator. Adnan Syed would not be retried. On October 11, 2022, prosecutors at last dropped the charges against him. The question remains, however, why no DNA test was done beforehand.
“The Adnan Syed case just goes to show you that there are many, many more [wrongful convictions] underneath,” a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, Bazelon, told Reason. “The only reason he got out was because of the sheer pressure of media attention forcing prosecutors to revisit it over and over.... [They] don’t have any resources, and it’s going be really, really hard to ever find them, and then if we do find them, it’s almost impossible to get them out because of these crazy procedural obstacles that we stick in their path.”
Unfortunately for the thousands of other factually innocent people languishing in prison, they will never be the beneficiaries of a serendipitous series of events like those tha t resulted in the exoneration of Adnan Syed, but they are undoubtedly just as innocent as he was.
Sources: Nymag.com; Reason.com
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