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Did the Serial podcast assist free Adnan Syed? Not in the best way you would possibly count on.


In a stunning new twist to one of the crucial notable true crime instances of the fashionable period, a Baltimore choose has vacated the conviction and ordered the speedy launch of Adnan Syed, 41, from jail. Syed has maintained his innocence whereas serving 23 years of a life sentence for the 1999 homicide of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee — the case that turned the 2014 podcast Serial right into a podcasting phenomenon.

The choice comes as a part of a brand new investigation spearheaded by the state as a part of ongoing citywide and statewide efforts to create important felony justice reform — a reform arguably galvanized by a cultural wave of curiosity in true crime that started due to Serial itself.

The investigation revealed severe errors in Syed’s authentic court docket case, together with a number of Brady violations, which means that the prosecution refused to show over probably exculpatory proof to the protection previous to Syed’s trial.

In mild of this new proof, introduced forth not by the protection however by the prosecution in a particularly uncommon second of self-reflection, Circuit Decide Melissa Phinn overturned the decision and gave the state 30 days through which to drop the prevailing fees in opposition to Syed or schedule a retrial.

On the time of Lee’s homicide, Syed, then 17, was thought of a beloved and upstanding member of his Baltimore Muslim group. Following the homicide of Lee, his highschool ex-girlfriend, Syed was put by means of a trial — completely excavated by journalist Sarah Koenig in Serial, in addition to by advocates like Rabia Chaudry — that relied closely on circumstantial proof, shaky testimony from Syed’s drug seller, and now-infamous cellphone tower information whose accuracy has been hotly debated. Syed’s protection was additional hampered by what was typically believed to have been an insufficient protection counsel who failed to research no less than one potential alibi witness on his behalf, and who was later disbarred.

Advocates for Syed’s innocence have continuously complained that police didn’t do sufficient to determine different potential suspects within the case. Nonetheless, the brand new movement to vacate, introduced to the court docket on September 14 by prosecuting legal professional Becky Feldman, revealed that on the contrary, police had two robust alternate suspects. They merely withheld that data from the protection.

The prosecution is required, by legislation, to show over any and all proof it has in a trial that could possibly be considerably favorable to the protection. In felony justice lingo, any failure to show over this sort of data is a particularly severe type of misconduct often called a Brady violation. The explanation Brady violations are handled so significantly is that if the protection doesn’t know proof exists, it will probably’t use that proof in its favor, and even request it from the prosecution. And for the reason that prosecution is the aspect getting most of its data instantly from the police investigation, it has a vital accountability to make all the things that investigation uncovered out there to the defendant. In Syed’s case, the prosecution sat on not one, however two totally different potential alternate suspects — considered one of whom, in response to the brand new movement to vacate, allegedly threatened to kill Lee shortly earlier than her loss of life.

Syed has had an extended street to freedom

It’s protected to say that many individuals aware of Syed’s case — and Serial had a peak viewers of over 2 million individuals per episode, with hundreds of thousands extra having listened to it within the years since — imagine that, no matter his guilt or innocence, his trial was unfair and shrouded in loads of cheap doubt. Fashionable sentiment in favor of Syed’s innocence has helped gas an extended marketing campaign of advocacy on his behalf. However his quite a few appeals and motions for a brand new trial have suffered a number of setbacks. An appellate court docket first granted Syed a brand new trial in 2016, on his final attraction — however regardless of this ruling being upheld in 2018, in 2019, the Maryland Court docket of Appeals rejected it.

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The court docket did so regardless of agreeing with Syed’s declare that his protection legal professional ought to have interviewed his potential alibi witness, who got here ahead throughout the Serial podcast to disclose that Syed’s legal professional had by no means responded to her letter providing to testify on his behalf. The Appeals court docket nonetheless discovered the conviction to be primarily based on “substantial direct and circumstantial proof pointing to Mr. Syed’s guilt,” and voted in a 4-3 resolution to uphold Syed’s conviction. Syed’s attorneys appealed this resolution to the US Supreme Court docket, just for the court docket to decline to listen to the case that very same 12 months.

That may have been the top of the street for Syed’s case, had the Maryland workplace that initially prosecuted him — and which then spent years preventing the reversal of his conviction — not had a change of coronary heart. Whereas the about-face might sound sudden, it truly took place as a part of two separate years-long efforts to appropriate disturbing items of Maryland’s felony justice system. Certainly, the brand new investigation into Syed’s case speaks to an enormous and heartening sea change in the best way felony instances are being approached in Baltimore.

The years-long efforts to reform Maryland’s felony justice system

Ideally, the objective of the felony justice system is to rehabilitate prisoners and put together them for aid. Between 1969 and 1994 in Maryland, this is kind of what occurred: Over these 25 years, 181 inmates serving life sentences had been paroled by the state of Maryland, with three governors approving their launch. All through the ’80s and early ’90s nonetheless, throughout America, rising crime statistics fueled a drastic cultural shift in perspective towards felony incarcerations. This shift arguably peaked in 1995, when Princeton public coverage professor John J. Dilulio Jr. minted the racially charged phrase “superpredator” to explain a particular new terrifying class of remorseless city teenager supposedly able to inflicting excessive violence at scale.

This concept was a utterly unfounded racist ethical panic with no foundation in actuality. However the affect of the “superpredator” fable on lawmakers was profound, and will have instantly impacted the Maryland governors who had been chargeable for granting parole to incarcerated criminals. That shift from leniency to punishment was extreme: From 1995 to 2015, three totally different Maryland governors summarily rejected each single advice for parole they acquired — 24 in complete, together with juvenile offenders and adults — with out clarification. “No particular person in Maryland sentenced to life with parole as a juvenile has been authorized for launch in over twenty years,” asserted one 2017 attraction.

Starting in 2015, the Baltimore prosecutor’s workplace joined with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and the ACLU in efforts to safe the discharge of 4 inmates who’d had their paroles authorized after which repeatedly rejected by the governors of the state, some whereas serving practically 4 many years in jail. This effort in the end led to the overturning of the constitutional statute granting governor’s the correct to single-handedly deny parole — an enormous win for the justice system.

It additionally led to a sustained effort inside the Baltimore prosecutor’s workplace to amend harsh sentences. In December 2020, prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, main a rising development in cities across the nation, created a new Sentencing Overview Unit of the Baltimore State’s Lawyer’s Workplace to rigorously reexamine and rethink whether or not the sentences of incarcerated criminals are too excessive, and to weigh circumstances which may contribute to their rehabilitation and launch. Any inmate over the age of 60 in addition to any inmate sentenced for a criminal offense dedicated as a juvenile who’d served 25 years or extra was eligible to use for aid by means of the unit, in addition to any inmate who was at excessive threat from Covid-19. The unit shaped with Becky Feldman because the chief officer and instantly received outcomes: Per week after it opened, Maryland’s longest-serving feminine inmate was freed. Eraina Fairly had served 42 years in jail for a criminal offense she dedicated when she was simply 18.

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That every one brings us again to Adnan Syed. Shortly after it was shaped, Syed’s lawyer, Erica Suter, appealed for sentencing aid for Syed by means of the Sentencing Overview Unit. Nonetheless, the prosecutor’s workplace below Mosby didn’t merely conform to reexamine the appropriateness of Syed’s sentence; they agreed to reexamine his conviction altogether.

They had been in a position to do that due to one other essential aspect of felony justice reform within the state. Whereas all this was taking place, Baltimore was concurrently reeling from an intensive federal investigation, begun in 2016, into ongoing corruption by the Baltimore Police Division, together with a deeply soiled gun activity power that falsified proof and lied on the witness stand, amongst many different corrupt actions.

The following justice reform efforts within the wake of the investigation included the passage of a 2019 statute permitting felony convictions secured resulting from testimony from the corrupt gun activity power officers to be vacated after assessment. The fallout from this statute was massive: 153 convictions had been instantly thrown into query due to it.

However the statute went additional: It additionally allowed reexamination into different felony trials the place “new proof has known as into query the integrity of the conviction.” That opened the door for the sentencing unit to take one other have a look at Syed’s case. The following investigation lasted practically a 12 months and uncovered not solely the Brady violations however “important reliability points” regarding key items of proof that had been introduced at Syed’s authentic trial.

Justice for Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed? It’s extra seemingly than you suppose.

We don’t know a lot in regards to the two alternate suspects named within the prosecution’s new movement to vacate. However we do know that two totally different males apparently had a said motive to hurt Hae Min Lee. Considered one of these males had warned that he would make her “disappear.” Neither of those suspects was ever turned over to the protection regardless of repeated requests from the protection for data all through the trial.

Astonishingly, the brand new investigation additionally revealed that Lee’s automobile, discovered after her loss of life, was parked instantly behind the home of an in depth relative of one of many alternate suspects.

The prosecution’s movement to vacate additionally marks the primary time that the state admitted how flimsy the unique case in opposition to Syed was. Regardless of the Appeals court docket’s assertion of considerable proof, the prosecutor’s movement held that the proof in opposition to Syed was “not overwhelming and was largely circumstantial.”

One other vastly optimistic improvement within the case is the prosecution’s admission that one of many alternate suspects mustn’t have been cleared from suspicion to start with. The suspect was written off as a result of they took a polygraph take a look at, which even in 1999 weren’t admissible in court docket. Polygraphs, regardless of their nickname, are usually not “lie detectors” as a result of all they’ll do is measure stress ranges. Their interpretations are utterly subjective and unscientific, and they need to not be thought of as related proof in any felony investigation. The prosecution’s acknowledgment that using a polygraph was a hindrance in Syed’s case is a small however essential little bit of justice, and hopefully will assist result in much less reliance on polygraphs basically from legislation enforcement.

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Within the wake of those new revelations, the Baltimore police division has pledged to reopen its authentic investigation into the homicide of Hae Min Lee. This, once more, is an important step ahead within the relationship between the Baltimore justice system and the reality; too typically in felony instances like these, we see refusals from prosecutors and police to confess that they might have gotten the mistaken perpetrator and a refusal to reinvestigate an previous case. However not this time.

As for Syed, whereas the prosecutor didn’t assert his innocence, it appears seemingly, given the renewed investigation into Lee’s loss of life, that Mosby will select to not pursue a retrial in opposition to him. If that occurs, not solely will Syed lastly be free after practically 1 / 4 century, however his case will really be one for the file books: a exceptional and uncommon instance of delayed justice lastly overcome thanks primarily to a system-wide wave of reform.

Briefly, Syed’s vacated conviction is a testomony not solely to the relentless efforts of his supporters, and never solely to the deserves of his specific case, however of the far-reaching affect that broad modifications within the felony justice system can have on the lives of people.

That’s all to say that there’s no room for a story so simple as “Serial saved Adnan Syed,” however the function of true crime on this case — and this case’s function within the development of true crime — continues to be value pausing to think about. The change in perspective evinced by Baltimore’s prosecution all through the second wave of this case represents and displays an enormous cultural shift in attitudes towards felony prosecutions. The appearance of the true-crime development has made hundreds of thousands of People extra conscious than ever of the boundaries and flaws of the justice system. True crime followers throughout the nation at the moment are loud advocates for thorough investigations, for throwing out junk methods like polygraphs, for reopening chilly instances, for rehabilitating inmates relatively than punishing them. Due to Serial, different journalist-led true crime podcasts have had a direct affect on the instances they’ve investigated — like Within the Darkish, which helped free Curtis Flowers from loss of life row in 2019. It’s not an exaggeration to say that each one that change has occurred partly instantly as a result of of Adnan Syed and the affect that Serial had on our cultural understanding of the justice system.

So once we take a broad have a look at the affect of Maryland’s felony justice system reform, and the direct affect it simply had on Adnan Syed’s incarceration, we additionally face the startling realization that maybe Adnan Syed himself, and the massive profound cultural affect of his case, instantly impacted Maryland’s broad felony justice reform.

That by some means makes this ending to Serial, one of many largest true crime phenomenons of the century, really feel all of the extra becoming.



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