Opinion: How the Adnan Syed debacle could have been avoided

Editor’s note: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, adjunct professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a CNN legal analyst. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


If you’ve heard of Adnan Syed, who was released earlier this week while serving a life sentence for murdering his art school girlfriend, it’s likely because of the “Serial” podcast.

“Serial” brought Syed and his case to the attention of tens of millions of viewers only when it aired in 2014; but it fueled continued public interest in the case and perhaps even strengthened Syed’s ability to attract and retain top lawyers.

Most criminal defendants are not so lucky. However, in the end, it appears that despite the strong public interest, prosecutors never took Syed’s case seriously until a request was made under Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act. (Syed was 17 at the time of the murder.)

Meanwhile, Syed served 23 years for a crime he apparently did not commit, and almost all of the facts that led prosecutors to this conclusion were known – or reasonably could have been known – in 1999. Syed was convicted.

There must be – and there is – a better way for prosecutors to ensure meaningful review of questionable convictions. What’s surprising is why it wasn’t used here.

As a former prosecutor, I listened eagerly when Serial’s coverage of the Adnan Syed case aired. Even for people unfamiliar with criminal justice, it had all the ingredients that make true crime such a popular genre: a young, likable victim, her high school boyfriend as the suspect, and a gruesome murder, along with a determined and determined one. charismatic reporter, exploring the important questions of whether the prosecutor convicted the right person.

The podcast revealed that the Syed case was flimsy and mostly circumstantial, but by itself it apparently did not prompt prosecutors to reexamine it. Instead, the inside look at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office came after a new Maryland law passed that allows courts to reconsider the sentences of defendants who have served at least 20 years and who are convicted as present-day non-dangerous juveniles. the community

After the law went into effect, Syed’s attorney immediately requested that prosecutors review Syed’s case to see if they would accept a reduced sentence, and that review found numerous problems with the original case that were apparent from a review of their files, among other things. two other credible suspects who have not been properly investigated, exceptional information that has not been given to the defense (a huge constitutional violation in itself).

The review also found significant reasons to doubt the veracity of the government’s key witness, as well as information that significantly undermined the reliability of the cellphone data used by prosecutors to bolster their case.

In short, after several months of trial last year and this year, the case fell apart, and prosecutors applied to overturn the conviction. Technically, prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to request a new trial. (They have not declared Syed innocent and are awaiting the results of DNA evidence before deciding on the next step) but an agreement to release Syed without bail, along with admissions about his case and statements being made about the investigation of other suspects. , makes a new trial very unlikely.

While this is obviously a positive thing for Syed, it comes many, many years too late. And it’s also hard for the victim’s loved one, Hae Min Lee, to know that her murder is now unsolved once again, and may stay that way. Although prosecutors say they’re still investigating, old cases are notoriously difficult for obvious reasons: evidence disappears or spoils, and memories fade.

All defendants are offered various appeals and other challenges to their convictions, but the legal rules for overturning a conviction are difficult to meet, and in this case only prosecutors had access to the relevant information.

So, aside from the obvious solution of doing a better job of ensuring a competent and thorough investigation, complying with all discovery rules and presenting reliable evidence, what better can the prosecutor do in cases where significant questions are raised. true?

One answer is a meaningful review of the prosecution’s conviction. Unlike sentencing review processes, which are not designed to encourage full investigative review, conviction review can involve reexamination of cases that advance a colorable claim, and defendants do not have to wait 20 years before filing.

In recent years, prosecutors across the country have created such units, and while the units vary widely in their standards and resources, they have collectively resulted in hundreds of mistrials. (I am involved in this process for two District Attorney’s offices, in Kings County and Suffolk County, New York, as part of an external review panel that advises the District Attorney’s Office on individual cases.)

Ironically, according to its website, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office has such a unit, so it’s not clear why a thorough review of Syed’s case eventually took place in support of the conviction review. Syed clearly met the unit’s requirement to claim actual innocence, and it is hard to imagine that his lawyers, as aggressive as they have been on his behalf, would not file a request for this type of review.

If Syed’s case had been evaluated by an office dedicated to serious and meaningful sentencing review, the realization that his case did not stack up on closer inspection might have come years ago. Strong sentencing review may not have helped Adnan Syed, but it could help many defendants in similar situations down the road.