At the request of prosecutors, a Maryland court on Monday overturned the conviction of Adnan Syed, whose name may be familiar if you’ve listened to the “Serial” podcast or watched the HBO series “Forbidden Love.”
More than two decades ago, a jury found Syed, then 18, guilty of the murder of a fellow teen, Hae Min Lee, and was personally sentenced to life in prison. Fourteen years after his imprisonment, “Serial” Revealed a potential alibi witness and noted problems with some of the evidence presented at his trial. It also sheds light on the poor representation Syed received from his counsel, who was suspended for only a year after Syed’s conviction. A judge in Maryland granted Syed a new trial, and an appeals court upheld that decision.
A fair trial – or the legal guarantees afforded to all suspects – usually protects the accused until there is a conviction; after that, defendants must fill out the proverbial Hail Mary pass to get a new trial.
But in 2019, the highest court in Maryland ruled, in a divided opinion, rolled back the decision of the Court of Appeal. Agreed that the conduct of Syed’s trial attorney in investigating the case was unacceptable, but concluded that the evidence presented at Syed’s trial was too strong for that flaw to have made a difference. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Syed’s new attorneys from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project are pushing ahead. Finally, in a movement Filed last week, prosecutors sought to withdraw his conviction after discovering information about the possible involvement of two alternate suspects in Lee’s murder. At least one of the suspects was known to prosecutors before Syed’s trial, but that was not disclosed to him, resulting in “Brady violations” – meaning that evidence useful to the defense was not properly made available . Prosecutors also acknowledged “significant reliability issues related to the most critical pieces of evidence at trial.”
To be sure, the state has not admitted that Syed is innocent — only that it no longer “had confidence in the integrity of this conviction” and that Syed should be released from prison, without bail, while prosecutors continue their investigations. Syed could still be tried again for the same murder.
While the ruling is certainly worth celebrating for now, Syed’s experience reveals some unpleasant truths about our criminal justice system. For starters, due process – or the legal guarantees afforded to all suspects – usually protects the accused until there is a conviction; after that, defendants must complete the proverbial Hail Mary pass to get a new trial, let alone earn their freedom.
A proper process gives defendants, among other things, the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. They have the right to see the prosecutors’ evidence before the trial and to confront their witnesses in court. Prosecutors, meanwhile, must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. And they must convince a jury of the defendant’s colleagues, selected with the defendant’s input, that they have achieved that very high bar.
As the case of Syed demonstrates, these safeguards are not perfect. But pre-conviction safeguards are nonetheless robust and effective. Unfortunately, they are almost completely left out after a guilty plea or plea. The system aims to prevent innocent people from being convicted. But once convicted, guilt is assumed and the system shifts to protecting the conviction.
Concepts such as the presumption of innocence and the “rule of lenity” (the principle that any ambiguous criminal statute must be interpreted in favor of the accused) are replaced by procedural hurdles established to prevent courts from examining the merits of post-conviction petitions unless defendants present their arguments in a timely manner at each step of the appeals process, to allow for an orderly assessment of the issues before the file grows old.
Even clearing these hurdles is by no means a guarantee of success. Criminal misconduct and judicial errors include: not enough to earn another trial; normally defendants must demonstrate that they had a reasonable chance of winning during the trial as well – and the court usually considers the evidence in light most favorable to the persecution. In addition, the bar to show that the attorney was incompetent, that the judge made consequential errors, or that the jury reached an irrational verdict is almost impossibly high.
Only this year is the Supreme Court ruled: that receiving ineffective representation in both the trial and the post-conviction phase is not a reason for criminal defendants to have a retrial – they cannot attack the trial attorney’s jurisdiction when their second attorney, also incompetent, does not did, and the defendant therefore forego an opportunity to attack the trial attorney’s performance.
To be fair, the shift from protecting the accused to preserving the conviction is a necessity. Thousands of defendants every year the courts request his release. In our observations as former clerks of judges to whom these petitions are addressed, the vast majority are frivolous. If courts received each with full hearings, our justice system would grind to a halt and the fair trial the accused receives could suffer.
When judges are busy conducting futile hearings, they can pay less attention to motions asking to drop charges, suppress search warrants and other pre-trial requests that may be valid. More importantly, suspects may not receive the speedy trials to which they are entitled under the Constitution.
That reveals another truth about the system: We rely more and more on prosecutors and investigative journalists to protect convicted suspects, because the rest of the justice system can’t always protect them. Prosecutors have the power to release convictions like Syed’s, and journalists are often crucial in drawing attention (and thus pressure) to them to do so.
There is a growing number of conviction integrity units in prosecutors (nearly tripled in the last six years), as well as sections such as the Judgment unit of judgmentwhich archived Syed’s motion, considering the release of suspects who have already served long terms. These units are desperately needed because, while most prosecutors are honorable and conscientious, there are notable exceptions. And even honest prosecutors can convict innocent defendants – often it only takes a lying witness, which the most important reason for convictions deemed illegal.
Since so many convicted defendants and their families vie for prosecutors’ attention even when they don’t deserve relief, reporters can help identify worthy cases and pave the way for eventual release. For convicted defendants like Syed, journalists are often the only hope left.