Editor’s Observe: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, adjunct professor of medical legislation at New York College College of Regulation, lecturer-in-law at Columbia Regulation College and a CNN authorized analyst. The opinions expressed listed below are her personal. Learn more opinion at CNN.
If in case you have heard of Adnan Syed, who had been serving a life sentence for killing his highschool girlfriend till he was released earlier this week, it’s probably due to the podcast “Serial.”
Not solely did “Serial” deliver Syed and his case to the eye of tens of hundreds of thousands of listeners when it aired in 2014; however it fed ongoing public interest within the case and even perhaps bolstered Syed’s skill to draw and hold top-notch attorneys.
The overwhelming majority of legal defendants will not be so fortunate. And but ultimately, it seems that regardless of the outsize public curiosity, prosecutors by no means took a tough have a look at Syed’s case till an software was made pursuant to Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act. (Syed was 17 on the time of the homicide.)
Within the meantime, Syed served 23 years for a criminal offense that it seems he didn’t commit, and nearly the entire information which have now induced prosecutors to succeed in that conclusion have been identified – or fairly might have been identified to them – again in 1999 when Syed was tried.
There should be – and there may be– a greater manner to make sure the significant evaluate by prosecutors of questionable convictions. What’s mystifying is why it was not utilized right here.
As a former prosecutor, I eagerly listened to Serial’s protection of the Adnan Syed case when it aired. Even for folks not intimately aware of the legal justice system, it had all of the elements that make true-crime such a preferred style: a younger and likable sufferer, her highschool boyfriend because the suspect and a grisly killing, coupled with a tenacious and charismatic reporter exploring vital questions on whether or not in truth prosecutors had convicted the fitting individual.
The podcast uncovered the Syed case as weak and largely circumstantial, however by itself apparently did not spur prosecutors to re-examine it. As an alternative, the exhausting look contained in the Baltimore Metropolis State’s Lawyer’s Workplace got here solely after passage of a new law in Maryland that permits courts to rethink sentences of defendants convicted as juveniles who’ve served not less than 20 years of a sentence and will not be a present hazard to the neighborhood.
After the legislation took impact, Syed’s counsel promptly requested that prosecutors evaluate Syed’s case to see whether or not they would conform to a sentencing discount, and that evaluate uncovered quite a few issues with the unique case that have been obvious from a evaluate of their recordsdata, including proof pointing to 2 different credible suspects who had not been correctly investigated, exculpatory information that had not been supplied to the protection (which is a significant constitutional violation in its personal proper).
The evaluate additionally discovered vital causes to doubt the veracity of the federal government’s key witness, in addition to data that considerably undermined the reliability of the cellphone information prosecutors had used to bolster their case.
Briefly, when examined over the course of a number of months final 12 months and this 12 months, the case fell aside, resulting in the prosecutor’s movement to vacate the conviction. Technically, prosecutors have 30 days to resolve whether or not to hunt a brand new trial. (They haven’t declared Syed really harmless and are ready on DNA proof outcomes earlier than deciding on their subsequent step) however their settlement that Syed might be launched with out bail, coupled with their admissions about his case and their statements concerning the ongoing investigation into different suspects, makes a brand new trial exceedingly unlikely.
Whereas that is clearly a optimistic factor for Syed, it comes many, a few years too late. And it is usually troublesome for the family members of the sufferer, Hae Min Lee, to be taught that her homicide is now as soon as once more unsolved, and should keep that manner. Whereas prosecutors say they’re continuing the investigation, instances this previous are extraordinarily difficult for the plain causes: proof disappears or deteriorates, and reminiscences fade.
All defendants are afforded a number of layers of appeals and different challenges to their convictions, however the authorized requirements for overturning a conviction are exhausting to fulfill – and on this case only the prosecutors had access to the related data.
So, apart from the plain resolution of doing a greater job within the first place to make sure a reliable and thorough investigation, compliance with all discovery guidelines and the presentation of dependable proof, what can prosecutors do higher in instances the place vital questions are raised after the actual fact?
One reply is significant conviction evaluate on the prosecutor’s workplace. In contrast to sentencing evaluate processes, which aren’t designed to immediate a full investigative evaluate, conviction evaluate can result in a full re-examination of instances for which a colorable declare is superior, and defendants needn’t wait 20 years earlier than making use of.
In recent years, prosecutors across the nation have arrange such models, and whereas the models fluctuate enormously of their requirements and assets, they collectively have led to tons of of convictions being vacated. (I take part on this course of for 2 District Lawyer’s Workplaces, in Kings County and Suffolk County, New York, as a part of an out of doors evaluate panel that gives recommendation to the District Lawyer about particular person instances.)
Sarcastically, in response to its web site, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office has such a unit, so it’s not clear why the thorough have a look at Syed’s case that lastly happened didn’t occur earlier underneath the auspices of conviction evaluate. Syed clearly met the unit’s requirement of asserting his precise innocence, and it’s troublesome to think about that his attorneys, as aggressive as they’ve been on his behalf, wouldn’t have filed an software for that type of evaluate.
Had Syed’s case been evaluated by an workplace that’s critical about and devoted to significant conviction evaluate, the conclusion that his case didn’t maintain collectively on nearer inspection might have come years in the past. Strong conviction evaluate might not have helped Adnan Syed, however might assist scores of similarly-situated defendants down the street.