Explainer: How Adnan Syed's case exposed a flawed criminal justice system

Explainer: How Adnan Syed's case exposed a flawed criminal justice system
Will the depiction of the case in the widely followed podcast Serial open the door for the re-evaluations of other cases? Or is this a case of raising awareness of a system too entrenched for meaningful reform?
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
12 October, 2022
The case of Adnan Syed has highlighted issues with the US criminal justice system. [Getty]

With the murder charges dropped Tuesday against Adnan Syed, who has been imprisoned since 1999 the age of 17, when he was convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee using what was later considered questionable evidence, criminal justice reform advocates are assessing what this means for future cases. 

Will the depiction of the case in the widely followed podcast Serial open the door for the re-evaluations of other cases? Or is this a case of raising awareness of a system too entrenched for meaningful reform?

How did the podcast Serial help Syed's case?

Most of those who knew about Adnan Syed's case became familiar with it through the hit podcast series Serial, which in 2014 detailed the flaws in proving the defendant's murder charge beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The podcast, which brought to light withheld evidence by the prosecution (known as a Brady violation, based on a Supreme Court case that requires the prosecution to turn over relevant evidence to the defence) and alternate suspects, has been widely credited for Syed's release last month.

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The crime took place in 1999 in Baltimore County, Maryland, when Hae Min Lee, Syed's ex-girlfriend was found in a park dead by strangulation.

Syed became a prime suspect after one of his friends told police Syed had expressed his wishes to kill Lee, confessed to him the crime and that he had helped Syed bury the body. 

But as the podcast Serial pointed out, there were two other viable suspects at the time, both of whom had previously attacked women, and at least one of whom had reportedly threatened to kill her. This information was withheld from the jury. 

Syed, on the other hand, did not have a criminal record before his arrest for Lee's murder. 

In addition, a friend of Syed's says she saw him at the library around the time that the murder likely happened, though she never got the chance to testify, which would have raised further doubt in the case against him. 

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

"Finally, 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 have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit."

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Why is this important?

Simply put, the US justice system requires that in a criminal case a defendant be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for there to be a conviction. In Syed's case, Serial was able to highlight important examples of reasonable doubt, though he wouldn't be released until eight years after the podcast.

Though the release of Adnan Syed and the dismissal of the charges against him made international news, he is far from the only one who has been imprisoned over what was later considered flawed evidence. 

According to the NGO the Innocence Project, there have been 375 DNA exonerations to date, a number that continues to accelerate with the advancement of science since the first DNA exoneration in 1989. This number doesn't take into account those who continue to serve time in prison while trying to get a new trial. 

There are arguably numerous flaws in the US criminal justice system. Beyond those directly related to Syed's case, there is a general situation of overworked public defenders, a system that favours prosecutors, and understaffing at different levels.

"There are thousands of Adnan Syeds, but they don't make the papers. This is how the system operates," Patricia Maulden, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University, tells The New Arab. "Everyone is in a hurry. Time is money. There are huge case overloads and understaffing."

This means few resources for looking at potential wrongful convictions.

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"Our criminal justice system is so overwhelmed by cases that once there's a conviction, there's extreme reluctance to re-examine that conviction," Valena Beety, a law professor at Arizona State University, tells TNA.

"The process is set up to confirm convictions. It's much more difficult to reverse a conviction than to get one."

What can be expected moving forward?

For now, the case against Syed has been closed, and the state's attorney for the city of Baltimore says they will continue to pursue justice for Lee. 

"This case is over. There are no more appeals necessary," Mosby said at a news conference, the Associated Press reported. 

"Although my administration was not responsible for neither the pain inflicted upon Hae Min Lee’s family, nor was my administration responsible for the wrongful conviction of Mr Syed, as a representative of the institution, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and to apologize to the family of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed... Justice is never denied, but justice be done. Today, justice is done," Mosby said.

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As for the system itself, some criminal justice reform advocates believe there should be more focus not just on wrongful convictions but also on the amount of time people spend incarcerated, how they spend their time behind bars, as well as overall rehabilitation.

Maulden notes that Syed pursued a degree during his time in prison, something that has been shown to reduce recidivism.

Dana Drusinsky, former San Francisco assistant district attorney, speaking in her personal capacity, tells TNA, "We should also look at rehabilitation and see if someone has been rehabilitated. If they're rehabilitated, maybe the sentence was too long."

"There's so much more information about brain development. If they went in as a child, maybe just based on that, the case is worth a second look," she said.

Though Serial will inevitably be associated with Syed's release, one expert cautions not to put too much stock into the power of a podcast to help reform a complex criminal justice system. 

"I just don't want to rest easily with the idea that citizen investigative podcasts are all good. I'm sceptical of our tendency to sensationalise crime," Renee Heberle, a professor of political science at the University of Toledo, tells TNA. "The more titillating, the less concerned people could become at the policy level."

She adds, "It is feeding a sense of influencing attitudes without paying attention to systemic issues."