The protagonist of the legendary Serial podcast that put the scourge of questionable convictions into millions of ears in 2014 was set free yesterday after 24 years in prison. Adnan Syed, 17 at the time, was convicted of stabbing his high school classmate Hae Min Lee in suburban Baltimore and dumping her body in the woods. The conviction was based on cell phone records and a testimony of a friend who claimed he helped bury the body. The friend has not recanted but the cell phone records—which placed Mr. Syed near where the body was found—have been debunked.
What happened yesterday was stunning. After decades of resistance, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office agreed that the conviction was unreliable. State’s Attorney Marylin Mosby did not agree to vacate the charges against Mr. Syed, but he was released on home detention and a retrial is still possible. Most agree that it will be exceedingly difficult for the state to take the case to trial now, decades later. Mr. Syed is likely to be fully exonerated.
Anyone listening to the hours of podcast material would conclude that the conviction was shaky at best.
But Mr. Syed knew Hae Min Lee (there is a photo of them from their junior prom) and the state’s star witness stuck to his story, even though he had credibility problems of his own. The new evidence that caused the state to agree to vacate the conviction centers on alternative suspects that the police knew about, but did not tell the defense about at the time of the trial or for years after.
The power of the podcast lay in this ambiguity. As David Leonhardt wrote in today’s New York Times morning newsletter: “When I finished listening to the first season of ‘Serial’ years ago, I had two thoughts. One, if I’d been a juror, I would have voted to acquit, because you certainly raised reasonable doubts. Two, I thought there was a good chance Syed had committed the crime.”
At the same time, Mr. Syed’s conviction has all the hallmarks of a miscarriage of justice. Our clients have been wrongly convicted on far less evidence. The testimony of the man who claimed he helped Mr. Syed bury the body is just like the coerced testimony of Javier Ramos, who was forced to testify against our client Felipe Rodriguez, exonerated in 2019. It was much stronger than the testimony of seven statement witnesses who testified against our client James Pugh and his co-defendant, Scott Lorenz, who, we contend, were wrongly convicted in 1993 of the murder of a young mother in Buffalo. Prosecutors held back evidence pointing to other suspects in that case, too. And another set of prosecutors, re-investigating that case, concluded our clients were innocent, but overruled by the elected district attorney. Their integrity cost them their careers.
I don’t know whether Adnan Syed killed his high school sweetheart. I hope not. But I do know this: he was not tried fairly. Everyone looking at the case (except maybe the police who set him up) has agreed that the trial was unfair, its result unreliable. Soon enough, when the State’s Attorney dismisses the indictment, the case will again be officially unsolved. What happened to Mr. Syed could happen to anyone in America. When police and prosecutors cheat, the fact that you did not commit the crime does not mean you won’t be convicted of it.