How Adnan Syed’s case exposed a failing justice system

Will the description of the case in the widely followed Serial podcast open the door to reassessing other cases? Or is it an awareness of a system too entrenched for meaningful reform?

Adnan Syed’s case highlighted problems with the US criminal justice system. [Getty]

As murder charges were dropped on Tuesday against Adnan Syed, who has been jailed since 1999 aged 17, when he was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee using what was later considered dubious evidence, criminal justice reform advocates are weighing what this means for future cases.

Will the description of the case in the widely followed Serial podcast open the door to reassessing other cases? Or is it an awareness of a system too entrenched for meaningful reform?

How did the Serial podcast help Syed’s case?

Most of those familiar with the case of Adnan Syed became familiar with it through the hit podcast series Serial, which in 2014 detailed the flaws in the evidence of the defendant’s murder charge in beyond any reasonable doubt.

The podcast, which highlighted evidence withheld by the prosecution (known as the Brady Breach, based on a Supreme Court case that requires the prosecution to turn over relevant evidence to the defense) and other suspects, was widely credited with freeing Syed the last time. month.

The crime took place in 1999 in Baltimore County, Maryland, when Hae Min Lee, Syed’s ex-girlfriend, was found strangulated to death in a park.

Syed became a prime suspect after a friend of his told police that Syed expressed his wish to kill Lee, confessed to the crime to him, and helped Syed bury the body.

But as the Serial podcast pointed out, there were two other viable suspects at the time, both of whom had previously attacked women, and at least one of whom allegedly threatened to kill her. This information was not communicated to the jury.

Syed, on the other hand, had no criminal record prior to his arrest for Lee’s murder.

Additionally, a friend of Syed says she saw him in the library around the time the murder likely happened, although she never got the chance to testify, which would have raised concerns. more doubts in the case against him.

Crucially, the DNA evidence that could have exonerated Syed was not tested at the time.

“At last, Adnan Syed is able to live as a free man,” Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, said in a statement on Tuesday after all charges against her client were dismissed. “The DNA results confirmed what we already knew and what underlies all ongoing proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and has lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not committed.”

Why is this important?

Simply put, the US legal system requires that, in a criminal case, a defendant be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order for there to be a conviction. In Syed’s case, Serial was able to highlight significant instances of reasonable doubt, despite not being released until eight years after the podcast.

Although the release of Adnan Syed and the dismissal of the charges against him have made international headlines, he is far from the only one to have been imprisoned for what was later deemed to be faulty evidence.

According to the NGO Innocence Project, there have been 375 DNA exonerations to date, a number which continues to accelerate with advances in science since the first DNA exoneration in 1989. This number does not take into account those who continue to serve their sentence. in jail trying to get a new trial.

There are undoubtedly many flaws in the American criminal justice system. Beyond those directly related to Syed’s case, there is a general situation of overstretched public defenders, a system that favors prosecutors, and a lack of staff at various levels.

“There are thousands of Adnan Syeds, but they don’t make the headlines. That’s how the system works,” said Patricia Maulden, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University. The new Arabic. “Everyone is in a rush. Time is money. There are huge case overloads and understaffing.”

This means few resources to investigate potential wrongful convictions.

“Our criminal justice system is so overwhelmed with cases that once there is a conviction, there is an extreme reluctance to review that conviction,” said Valeny Beety, a law professor at Arizona State University. . TNA.

“The process is in place to uphold convictions. It’s much harder to overturn a conviction than to get one.”

What can we expect moving forward?

For now, the case against Syed has been closed and the Baltimore City Attorney said they will continue to seek justice for Lee.

“This matter is over. There are no more appeals needed,” Mosby said at a news conference, The Associated Press reported.

“While my administration is not responsible for the pain inflicted on Hae Min Lee’s family, nor for Mr. Syed’s wrongful conviction, as a representative of the institution, it is my responsibility to recognize and respond to ‘apologize to the family. of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed… Justice is never denied, but justice must be served. Today, justice is served,” Mosby said.

As for the system itself, some proponents of criminal justice reform believe that more emphasis should be placed not only on wrongful convictions, but also on the time people spend in prison, the how they spend their time behind bars, as well as on overall rehabilitation.

Maulden notes that Syed earned a degree while in prison, which reduced recidivism.

Former San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Dana Drusinsky, speaking as an individual, recounts TNA“We should also look at rehabilitation and see if someone has been rehabilitated. If they are rehabilitated, maybe the sentence was too long.”

“There’s so much more information about brain development. If they went into childhood, maybe just on that basis, the case is worth re-examining,” he said. she declared.

Although Serial is inevitably associated with Syed’s exit, one expert cautions against overemphasizing a podcast’s power to help reform a complex criminal justice system.

“I just don’t want to rest easy on the idea that citizen inquiry podcasts are all good. I’m skeptical of our tendency to sensationalize crime,” said Renee Heberle, professor of political science at the University of Toledo. TNA. “The more titillating people are, the less politically involved they might become.”

She adds: “It feeds the feeling of influencing attitudes without paying attention to systemic issues.”