Regulars in the criminal courts develop a certain cynicism. It’s a survival instinct, really. We all know the system isn’t perfect. We protect ourselves against the devastating truth that innocent men and women are convicted by strict dedication to procedure. If everyone plays his or her role, then no one is responsible.
But it’s really not that simple.
Consider the case of Adnan Syed in Maryland. Syed is serving a life term after being convicted of murdering a former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. The two were high school students at the time.
The case against Syed was exceedingly thin, almost wholly dependent on the testimony of a single witness, an accessory after the fact who claims to have helped hide the body.
Syed was tried twice. The first case mistried, after the jury overheard the trial court accuse his defense counsel, Christina Guiterrez, of being untruthful in the jury’s presence. The second time around, he was found guilty. An appellate court denied him a new trial, and his petition for post-conviction relief also failed.
That would be the end of the road for most convicts, but Syed is lucky. His case drew the critical eye of a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun, Sarah Koenig. She started asking questions, interviewing witness, talking to jurors, visiting the scene of the crime; she even hired her own expert, a former detective, to review the evidence. And she spent hours with Syed discussing his trial, and the events that led to his conviction.
She produced a 12-part podcast, an audible broadcast that can be downloaded and listened to ay any time. Millions of people have listened to the podcast. I completed it just the other day.
The result is remarkable: It is perhaps the first time non-participants in a criminal trial can get a sustained and critical look at what goes on in the courts. And, notwithstanding the fact Syed was convicted, the series leaves one doubting whether, in fact, Syed is the killer.
Jurors interviewed as part of the series confirmed a dismal truth I long suspected: the presumption that a properly instructed jury follows the law is a species of wishful thinking. When Syed did not testify, jurors found it troubling; they held it against him, despite, I presume, jury instructions that not do so.
Of course, this evidence of juror misconduct won’t help Syed now. The courts turn a blind eye to such misconduct evidence, preferring the finality of a judgment to justice itself. But there’s more.
It turns out that Syed had an alibi. A young woman named Asia McLain claimed to be with Syed at the time of the killing. Syed’s defense lawyer knew about the woman, but did not interview her. When the Maryland court first heard the claim, it dismissed it as a strategic choice; Ms. McClain, the prosecution claimed, also recanted.
It turns out that she did not recant. In an affidavit sworn after the Syed podcast series was completed, she contends the state lied about her recantation, and that she was, in effect, bullied into silence by a prosecutor who was determined to protect the Syed conviction.
Earlier this year, the Maryland appellate court decided it would permit Syed’s post-conviction claims to advance, giving him the right to raise his ineffective assistance of counsel claims before an appellate tribunal.
It is extremely unlikely that Adnan Syed’s case would have advanced this far without the work of Sarah Koenig and her popular podcast. Without all the public attention, his claims would have evaporated; he would be regarded as just another prisoner desperate to get out of prison.
I have no idea whether Adnan Syed is guilty or not. It appears his trial lawyer ignored critical evidence. It also seems as though the state of Maryland was so determined to protect its conviction of Syed that it misled a witness, and, perhaps, the court.
If you get a chance to listen to the podcast about Adnan Syed, do so – it’s perfect commuting fare, the episodes range in length from just over half an hour to about an hour. It is a bold and refreshing look at the criminal justice system by an intelligent outside who cares less about the law and its sometime silly presumptions than about justice. You can find the podcast at www.serialpodcast.org.