By Gibran Khalil
BALTIMORE, MD – After the decision in mid-Sept. from a Baltimore judge to overturn the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, Baltimore prosecutors have dropped all charges against Syed.
Syed, 17 at the time, was found guilty of murder, robbery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment by a jury in 2000 after Lee’s body was discovered in a park in Baltimore County in 1999. Syed and Lee were classmates and dated in high school.
Syed maintained his innocence throughout and spent more than twenty years in prison before being released when prosecutors uncovered new evidence and moved to have his conviction vacated. The new evidence suggested that two other suspects could have been involved individually or together,” and there was a “stunning lack of reliable evidence implicating Mr. Syed,” according to Assistant Public Defender Erica Suter, who is Syed’s attorney and the Director of the Innocence Project Clinic.
Furthermore, prosecutors had located a document indicating that one of the alternative suspects had made direct death threats to Lee. Other new information revealed that despite cellphone records stating billing locations as unreliable for location, that data was used by prosecutors to prove Syed’s location in relation to the murder. This was given as another reason to then overturn the conviction.
The Lee family is seeking to appeal the decision to vacate the conviction, not to challenge Syed’s release, but to hold another hearing where the family can appear in court in person, seeing the original hearing as a violation of the family’s right to meaningfully participate in the hearing that led to the release of Syed. While the appeal remains pending and a motion to certify Syed’s innocence still needs to be completed by Suter, the charges against Syed have been dismissed by state attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and Baltimore prosecutors, meaning Syed won’t proceed to trial and is officially free.
The trial itself has been largely publicized in the last decade. The case was the subject of the podcast “Serial,” which debuted in 2014 and highlighted Syed’s case in its first season. The podcast exposed what many considered to be questionable evidence in the trial, and increased attention from the podcast was a factor in the case being revisited in the last decade. Maryland’s highest court overturned the decision an appeals court made to vacate Syed’s conviction in 2019.
Mano Raju of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office also stated that Syed’s background as a Muslim from a Pakistani immigrant family was a tool the state used to help convict him, meaning Syed also faced unscrutinized racial prejudice during his trial. References to Syed’s background were made hundreds of times in the courtroom, so much so that the prosecution linked his religion and race to reasons for committing the murder.
Furthermore, Syed’s case represents one of thousands in which individuals are exonerated after wrongfully serving time. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been at least 3,000 exonerated individuals that have spent 25,000 years of their lives behind bars due to wrongful prosecution as of Mar. 2022, and in Maryland, where Syed was convicted, thousands of cases pass by the same way. In fact, 80% of recorded exonerations in Baltimore involve the state withholding evidence, and an extremely high percentage of exonerations of cases in the U.S. involve the discovery of official misconduct, especially in homicide cases.
While the case and trials that have taken place are extremely complex, and with Syed having been released, it can feel that justice is still being found. However, looking at both the manner in which Syed’s trial, imprisonment, and release have taken place, as well as the involvement (or lack thereof) of the Lee family by the state, it’s clear the justice system as a whole is failing to affirm both justice and healing for parties involved in tragedy across the state. For people in Lee’s family, who do their best to heal after such a tragedy, they have no hope but to trust the state to deliver them justice. However, the state, in its racist misconduct and extremely lengthy processes of review, failed in that regard. The state also failed Syed by failing to deliver due process and full disclosure of information. With the murder case of Hae Min Lee opened once again, the heartbreak on both sides of this issue points to the tendency of the justice system to fail those who make contact with it. We need to affirm processes that hold accountability and healing at the center, instead of relying on antiquated and racist systems that haven’t just failed the Lee and Syed families but hundreds of thousands in the nation.
Gibran is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Ethnic Studies. He is originally from the Los Angeles area, and enjoys watching and playing soccer, listening to music, and discovering new food spots in his free time.