the law

Adnan Syed’s Accidental Justice

His exoneration shows the legal system is designed to cement wrongful convictions, not correct them.

Adnan Syed leaves a Baltimore courthouse after his conviction was overturned. Photo: Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Adnan Syed leaves a Baltimore courthouse after his conviction was overturned. Photo: Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

On Monday, a Maryland judge overturned Adnan Syed’s first-degree murder conviction for the 1999 death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. He exited the Baltimore courthouse to deafening cheers from a large crowd gathered outside. The 41-year-old is free for the first time since he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17, a saga memorably recounted by the smash-hit podcast Serial.

The case against Syed hinged on the testimony of his friend Jay Wilds, who told the jury that Syed showed him Lee’s body after placing it in the trunk of a car and enlisting his aid in helping dispose of it in a neighborhood park. But Wilds, who was given a lawyer by the prosecution and never charged, made statements that varied over time and with respect to key details. Crucial to corroborating Wilds’s shifting, incentivized account were cell-phone records that purportedly proved that Syed received calls in the park area around the time that he claimed they were burying Lee. Twenty-three years later, prosecutors now concede that their case against Syed was little more than smoke and mirrors. Worse, they had cheated in their zeal to win, burying key evidence.

If Syed’s freedom is cause for celebration, it is also cause for shame. He was not released because the American criminal justice system is fair. He was released despite its brokenness and corruption. For years, he remained in prison despite the worldwide attention brought by Serial and the relentless efforts of a core group of stubborn advocates. In the end, it took a random and quirky turn of events to unshackle him.

There are tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States just like Syed. But because they are anonymous, unrepresented, and unlucky, they are likely to remain there. That is how the legal system was designed.

Because of Serial, the world has long known that Syed’s conviction rested on shaky ground. The host, Sarah Koenig, meticulously documented how Syed’s trial attorney fell down on the job by failing to call a crucial alibi witness to the stand or to challenge the accuracy of the cell-phone records at the heart of the state’s case, which came with a cover sheet stating, “Any incoming calls will NOT be reliable information for location.”

The prosecutors who put Syed on trial knew from the outset that, as they now admit, there was “overwhelming cause for concern.” Notes in the trial prosecutor’s own handwriting document powerful evidence pointing to two other viable suspects, one of whom threatened to kill Lee. Both suspects have criminal histories, one for sexual assault. Rather than turn these potentially explosive leads as the Constitution requires, prosecutors buried them.

Again and again, judges and prosecutors in a position to undo Syed’s wrongful conviction doubled and tripled down to cement it, deploying procedural roadblocks, imposing exacting evidentiary standards, and failing to meaningfully review the evidence. This innocence-denying bureaucracy, supercharged by incompetence and indifference to the truth, doomed his repeated attempts to be exonerated. Disturbingly, nothing that happened in Syed’s case — including the gamesmanship — is particularly unusual. He is the 23rd Baltimore man to have his murder conviction thrown out because of official misconduct. Nationwide, police and prosecutor rule-breaking contributed to 72 percent of those falsely convicted of murder. As Professor Daniel Medwed explains in his new book, Barred: Why the Innocent Can’t Get Out Of Prison, “the system values finality and efficiency over accuracy.” He explains, “It’s about power and control. It’s about the ways in which those at the top keep those at the bottom from moving up.”

In 2010 and again in 2014, Syed’s attorneys filed appeals seeking to overturn his conviction based on the unreliability of the cell-phone evidence and the incompetence of Syed’s trial lawyer. At this point, prosecutors could have reopened the investigation — or at a minimum, reviewed their files to make sure everything had been done correctly. Instead, they argued that Syed had forfeited some of his arguments by failing to raise them at the right time and that other errors were dwarfed by “overwhelming evidence of his guilt.” The Maryland Supreme Court agreed, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that finding.

The overturning of Syed’s conviction came about accidentally — not even Syed held out any hope of such relief; he merely sought to be resentenced under a new state law allowing for shortened terms for those convicted as teenagers who had served more than 20 years. His petition was reviewed by Becky Feldman, the new head of the prosecutor’s resentencing unit, who previously spent more than a decade as a public defender. Feldman reexamined the entire case file, discovered the long-buried evidence, and turned it over. It was only then that the state finally admitted that Syed’s conviction could not stand.

Having an elected prosecutor recommend that a court overturn a conviction following a full reinvestigation is a relatively new phenomenon. Several of my recent clients have been the beneficiaries of similar arrangements put in place by other reform-minded prosecutors. But in 2013, when I was litigating my first wrongful-conviction case in Los Angeles, we faced the same innocence-denying headwinds that Syed was confronting thousands of miles away.

After unearthing evidence that our client’s murder conviction turned on false testimony and coercive police tactics, my co-counsel and I went to the district attorney’s office and showed our hand. Rather than dismiss the case, the prosecutor insisted on an evidentiary hearing, which is the equivalent of a retrial. Midway through, after the key eyewitness admitted that, for all she knew, the killer “might have been Magic Johnson,” the judge called the lawyers up to the bench. She asked the prosecutor if he still believed my client was guilty, 34 years into serving his life sentence. He demurred, saying, “What I know is that 12 people convicted him in 1979.”

That was true. An all-white jury had convicted my client, a Black teenager, of robbing and murdering an elderly white man based on perjury and police and prosecutorial misconduct. Knowing all of this, the prosecutor nonetheless fought to the bitter end. In his closing argument, he admitted his star witness was a “loon” but urged the judge to believe her anyway. She declined this invitation, and my client was exonerated. But nearly ten years later, the prosecutor remains in his job, with all of the power and prestige that position brings. According to California state records, he was paid $338,000 in salary and other compensation by the district attorney’s office in 2021.

Summing up the recent developments in Syed’s case, Serial podcast host Koenig emphasized the heartbreaking fact that the only new development was the prosecution’s 11th-hour acknowledgment of reality. “Adnan’s case was a mess. Is a mess. That’s pretty much where we were when we stopped reporting in 2014,” she said. And yet it took eight more years for prosecutors to admit that the evidence that had been in their possession all along pointed in only one direction — toward reasonable doubt.

Even still, the state of Maryland has not given up. Syed has been released but confined to his home with an electronic monitor that tracks his every movement. Prosecutors are still considering whether they want to retry him. While abhorrent, this is not an aberration. That is how our legal system was designed.

Adnan Syed’s Accidental Justice