Overview:

A celebrity case, with a conviction now overturned due to Brady violations, tells us so much more about the state of US criminal proceedings.

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In 2014, Adnan Syed became an internet sensation through Serial, an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig and supported by This American Life. Koenig had learned of Syed’s case through Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and friend of the Syed family, who was fighting his conviction in 2000 for the murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a high school student strangled in 1999. Serial explored many facets of the case against Syed, including ethnic prejudice, and the 12-part season skyrocketed into podcast fame. It won a Peabody Award, and broke podcast-download records. It also meant that when Syed’s conviction was overturned on Monday, granting him immediate release into home-monitoring while awaiting the possibility of a new trial, his name was all over the internet again.

This is not a sign of a healthy judicial system.

But it is a telling depiction of how the US appeals process works.

What emerged yesterday was the result of a Motion to Vacate Judgment. This document illustrates a few troubling issues in the US legal system. For one, it describes a recent push for DNA testing that only saw original samples reviewed 23 years after Lee’s body was found. For another, it includes an extensive outline of what’s called a Brady violation: when a prosecutor withholds evidence favorable to the defendant and material to the issue of guilt or punishment at hand.

In this case, the State’s trial file included reference to another suspect who had threatened to kill and disappear the victim, and who had motive to commit this crime. Because evidence for Syed’s guilt was largely circumstantial, the existence of another plausible suspect at the time of the trial would have been a huge boon for his defense. The Motion to Vacate further notes that there are now two other possible suspects, including a serial rapist with a history of abusing at least one woman known to him, and that Lee’s car was found behind the property of one of those suspects’ families.

Facts pertaining to the serial rapist were also known to the State at the time of the trial. Furthermore, one of the suspects was improperly cleared through the use of a polygraph test, a highly contentious means of extracting accurate information.

But we would be in error if we took these facts alone as key to Monday’s decision to vacate Syed’s conviction. It is extremely difficult for a person in the US, which leads the world in incarceration figures with 2 million people in jail and prison, to see their conviction overturned. Despite the common perception that people “get off on technicalities all the time”, there are very few post-conviction remedies if one is fighting a wrongful conviction. This is due to hard limits to one’s right to legal counsel, and “information asymmetry” throughout the legal process.

For instance, defendants are highly restricted in the information they are entitled to receive about the strength of a prosecutor’s case before trial. This yields a high number of early plea bargains under duress, which then make the appeals process more difficult. Also, if convicted after maintaining one’s innocence, one must then weigh the likelihood of ever mounting a successful appeal against parole-hearing requirements that a convict express remorse. If you feign remorse so as to get out of prison sooner, this “confession” will be used against you in future appeals.

It is also not always sufficient for new exculpatory evidence to emerge after the trial. Convicted people need to prove that this new evidence could not have been found earlier, and that this evidence would have changed the outcome of the case if so presented. Proof of flawed or manipulated scientific evidence, a common factor in US criminal proceedings, also does not intrinsically constitute new evidence. In these and many other ways, the US judicial system creates a high bar for the vacation of convictions and the exoneration of people in prison.

Adnan Syed was extremely fortunate within the world of convicted persons: his case caught the attention of broader society through Serial, and he had advocates working for over two decades to secure yesterday’s win. Very few convicted persons have had as many resources dedicated to their fights for freedom.

The State now has 30 days to decide if it will retry its case against him.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.