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, lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, and legal analyst at CNN. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.



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If you’ve heard of Adnan Syed, who served a life sentence for murdering his high school girlfriend until his release earlier this week, it’s probably because of the “Serial” podcast.

Not only did “Serial” bring Syed and his case to the attention of tens of millions of listeners when it aired in 2014; but it fueled continued public interest in the case and perhaps even bolstered Syed’s ability to attract and retain top-notch lawyers.

The vast majority of criminal suspects are not so lucky. And yet, in the end, it appears that, despite the excessive public interest, prosecutors never looked deeply into Syed’s case until an application was filed under Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act. (Syed was 17 at the time of the murder.)

In the meantime, Syed has served 23 years for a crime he does not appear to have committed, and virtually all of the facts that have now led prosecutors to that conclusion were known – or could reasonably have been known – in 1999 when Syed was tried.

There must be – and there is – a better way to ensure meaningful prosecution by prosecutors of questionable convictions. The puzzling thing is why it wasn’t used here.

As a former prosecutor, I eagerly listened to Serial’s coverage of the Adnan Syed case as it aired. Even for those unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, it had all the ingredients that make true crime such a popular genre: a young and sympathetic victim, her high school friend as a suspect, and a gruesome murder matched by a tenacious and charismatic reporter. who explored key questions about whether prosecutors had convicted the right person.

The podcast exposed the Syed case as weak and mostly circumstantial, but on its own it apparently didn’t encourage prosecutors to re-examine it. Instead, the hard look in the Baltimore City attorney’s office came only after the passage of a new Maryland law that would allow courts to reconsider the sentences of defendants convicted as minors who have served at least 20 years in prison. and present no danger to the community.

After the law went into effect, Syed’s counsel promptly requested that prosecutors review Syed’s case to see if they would agree to a reduced sentence, and that review revealed numerous issues with the original case that emerged. from a review of their files, including evidence pointing to two other credible suspects who had not been properly investigated, exculpatory information not provided to the defense (which in itself is a major constitutional violation).

The review also found important grounds to doubt the veracity of the government’s key witness, as well as information that significantly undermined the reliability of the cell phone records that prosecutors had used to support their case.

In short, under investigation over the course of several months last year and this year, the case fell apart, leading to the prosecutor’s request for the conviction to be lifted. Technically, prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to seek a new trial. (They have not actually declared Syed innocent and are awaiting the results of DNA evidence before making a decision on their next move) but their agreement that Syed can be released without bail, coupled with their confessions about his case and their statements about the ongoing investigation into other suspects makes a new trial extremely unlikely.

While this is obviously positive for Syed, it comes many, many years too late. And it’s also hard for the victim’s loved ones, Hae Min Lee, to learn that her murder is now once again unsolved, and can remain so. While prosecutors say they are continuing the investigation, such ancient cases are extremely challenging for obvious reasons: evidence disappears or deteriorates, and memories fade.

All defendants have multiple layers of appeal and other challenges to their convictions, but legal standards for overturning a conviction are difficult to meet – and in this case, only the prosecutors had access to the relevant information.

So, aside from the obvious solution to primarily do a better job of ensuring a competent and thorough investigation, compliance with all discovery rules, and the presentation of reliable evidence, what could prosecutors do better in cases where important questions are asked after the fact?

An answer is a meaningful assessment of convictions at the prosecutor’s office. Unlike conviction review processes, which are not designed to trigger a full investigative review, conviction review processes can lead to a full re-examination of cases for which a colorable claim has been filed, and defendants do not have to wait 20 years before submitting an application.

In recent years, prosecutors across the country have set up such units, and while the units vary widely in their standards and resources, collectively they have resulted in the release of hundreds of convictions. (I am participating in this trial for two prosecutors, in Kings County and Suffolk County, New York, as part of an outside review panel that advises the prosecutor on individual cases.)

Ironically, according to its website, the Baltimore City Attorney’s Office has such a unit, so it’s not clear why the in-depth look at Syed’s case that ended up happening didn’t happen earlier under the auspices of the sentencing. Syed clearly complied with the unit’s requirement to affirm his true innocence, and it’s hard to imagine his lawyers, as aggressive as they have been on his behalf, would not have filed for that sort of review.

If Syed’s case had been reviewed by an agency that is serious and committed to a meaningful conviction review, the realization that his case did not hold up on closer inspection might have come years ago. A thorough review of convictions may not have helped Adnan Syed, but it could help dozens of suspects in the same situation.