“Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.” This well-known aphorism was first spoken by Lord Hewart in 1924, the then Lord Chief Justice of England. That objective can sometimes lead to quite convoluted legal proceedings, however – none more apparent than in the case of Adnan Syed. For those who are not familiar with the hit 2014 podcast, “Serial”, here are the facts in a nutshell.

Adnan Syed has maintained his innocence since his conviction and sentence to life imprisonment in 2000 when he was just 17 years old for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, fellow high-school student, Hae Min Lee. Syed was also found guilty of robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment of Lee before her death. And there begins the legal roller coaster.

Syed’s Conviction Overturned

In September 2022, after 23 years of incarceration — more than half of Syed’s life — a Baltimore City Circuit judge overturned (vacated) his conviction and ordered a new trial “in the interests of justice.” Interestingly, this followed a request by a Baltimore prosecutor on September 14, 2022, during which they affirmed that “the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.” Syed and his lawyers had already tried innumerable times to challenge his conviction. The mind-boggling back and forth in this case has led to some commentators dubbing it a “protracted legal odyssey.”

However, it seems very clear now that Adnan Syed’s conviction was unsound. A lot of evidence has subsequently emerged highlighting that the burden of proof for a criminal conviction was not met. When ordering Syed’s release on home detention on his own recognizance in September 2022, Judge Michelle Phinn held that this was “in the interests of fairness and justice.”

Things Just Don’t Add Up

The prosecution admitted that they failed to share evidence implicating two other potential suspects who were neither named nor charged in 2000. This could potentially violate the Brady rule, which takes its name from the seminal Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, and requires the prosecution to disclose any exculpatory evidence which is favorable to the defendant’s case.

There have also been developments in touch DNA testing since the original trial. In March 2022, both Syed’s defense attorneys and state prosecutors filed a request jointly for new DNA tests to be conducted on Lee’s clothing, which were not possible at Syed’s original trial. The Baltimore City State Attorney who asked for Syed’s conviction to be overturned and for his release from prison had herself expressed the prosecution’s concerns about the validity of cellphone records which had been used as evidence to secure Syed’s original conviction. There was also a new witness, featured in the “Serial” podcast, who claimed that she had seen Syed in a public library at the time he allegedly killed Lee. Syed’s defense attorney had further argued that Syed’s conviction was predominantly based on a 19-year old’s testimony, who had been “incentivized” to cooperate.

In June 2022, the chief of the State Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit had started investigating this case. This followed the enactment of a new law in Maryland enabling prosecutors to review and modify sentences for offenders who were under 18 when committing their crimes and who had served at least 20 years in prison.

Syed finally saw the light of day after 23 long years behind bars. His legal odyssey was far from over, though.

Syed’s Murder Conviction Reinstated Yet Again

In March 2023, an appeal panel reinstated Syed’s murder conviction, finding that the lower court had violated the rights of the victim’s family. The contention was that Lee’s family had not been given adequate notice and therefore an opportunity to participate effectively in the proceedings. The Appellate Court of Maryland held that this violated the right of the victim’s family to be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Syed appealed against the reinstatement of his conviction to the Maryland Supreme Court, while Lee’s family also appealed, arguing that the views of the victim’s family should be given more weight when deciding on whether to vacate a conviction.

The Latest

On October 5, the Maryland Supreme Court considered both appeals. Tellingly, Ari Rubin, one of the Lee family’s attorneys, conceded that “This case is not about Mr. Syed’s underlying innocence or guilt. That dispute is simply not in the room today.” Rather, the matter under consideration was whether the victim’s brother, Young Lee, had his rights violated by only remotely participating in the hearing. The question was whether the victim had been allowed to fulfill their adversarial role in this case.

The panel of seven justices are expected to deliver their ruling by the end of the year — which means that Syed’s future hangs in the balance yet again. Several justices expressed skepticism as to whether there is any legal requirement at all for the victim to be heard when a conviction is vacated. Some news outlets have remarked that the fact that Syed has been able to remain out of prison during these proceedings is an indication of the likely future decision.

Competing Concerns

Ultimately, the most important issue in this case is the right to be innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, in a criminal case it is the prosecution that must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime with which they’ve been charged. These are fundamental concepts that underpin any justice system and society governed by the rule of law. The prosecution themselves have accepted that they do not have sufficient evidence with which to convict Adnan Syed and have dropped all charges on their own motion. Why, after having languished behind bars for the majority of his life and youth, should Syed now have to suffer more uncertainty and the prospect of re-incarceration looming over his head? That is not to detract at all from the profound tragedy of Lee’s murder and the deep suffering that her family must have endured. However, as much as the views of Lee’s family must be respected, there is simply no prosecution case to answer here and therefore no ground upon which to further deprive Syed, now 42 years old, of any more years of his liberty.

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