“Serial”: Adnan Syed’s conviction overturned after 23 years in prison

After twenty-three years in prison, Adnan Syed, the main character of the first season of the hit podcast “Serial”, found the beginning of freedom on Monday September 19. While several dozen people were waiting for him when he left court in Baltimore (in the northeastern United States), the man, now 41, did not speak, but we could see a wide grin on his face as he walked down the steps of the courthouse, to cheers, before sneaking into the back of a waiting car. “He says he can’t believe it”explained his lawyer, Erica Suter.

Adnan Syed was sentenced in February 2000 to life imprisonment for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his former girlfriend, who was found dead and buried in a Baltimore park, nearly a month after her disappearance on January 13, 1999. always denied being the author of the murder.

Judge Melissa Phinn says she overturned conviction “in the interests of justice and equity”. Adnan Syed is not exonerated, however, and he is not yet completely free. Prosecutors have “thirty days to decide whether they will ask for a new trial or drop the charges”, explain it New York Times. In the meantime, Mr. Syed remains under house arrest.

Implicated by the testimony of one of his friends, who accused him of having killed Hae Min Lee and of having asked him to help him bury him, Adnan Syed had been arrested, then sentenced at the end of a trial during which many leads seem not to have been followed.

“Serial”, fourteen years later

It took fourteen years for the case to take on an international dimension. Former journalist in the podcast “This American Life”, a reference in the United States, Sarah Koenig embarked on a counter-investigation alongside her co-producer, Julie Snyder. Their podcast, “Serial”, which serialized their investigation at the rate of a weekly episode, was a sensation: in the space of a few weeks, the twelve episodes had been downloaded five million times. In 2018, variety revealed that the first two seasons (the second had been devoted to a former American soldier who had become a hostage in Afghanistan), had been downloaded more than 340 million times.

The podcast had highlighted the many gray areas that weighed on the verdict and on the poor defense of Adnan Syed’s lawyer at the time. “Serial” has also prompted thousands of people around the world to redo the survey too.

Read the archive (2014): Why the first season of the “Serial” judicial podcast was so passionate

Adnan Syed had exhausted just about every appeal, including to the US Supreme Court. Then came September 15, 2022, when two prosecutors asked to overturn his conviction due to the discovery of new investigative material. “which could discredit Syed’s conviction”. The two magistrates, Marilyn Mosby and Becky Feldman, were not convinced of “the fairness of his sentence”.

This twist originated a year earlier. It all started with the adoption of a new law in October 2021, the “Juvenile Restoration Act”, says journalist Sarah Koenig in a new episode of “Serial” broadcast the day after Adnan Syed’s release. This law allows people who have spent more than twenty years in prison for a crime committed when they were minors to ask the courts to reduce the length of their sentence, or even to be released. Or Adnan Syed was 17 years old at the time of his arrest and his lawyer, Erica Suter, decided to ask the Baltimore district attorney’s office to re-examine the case.

Two new suspects

In June 2022, Becky Feldman decides to delve into the archives kept in the offices of the Attorney General. In the middle of the seventeen boxes of documents, she finds handwritten notes, which evoke another suspect.

According to the prosecutor, this suspect had “a motive, the opportunity and the means to commit the crime”, explains Sarah Koenig. But these notes were never submitted to Adnan Syed and his lawyers, in violation of the Brady rule, which requires that the elements allowing an accused to be exculpated must be provided to the defense. “That’s what alarms Becky Feldman. The defense never heard of the calls made to the prosecutor’s office [dans lesquels une personne accuse notamment un suspect d’avoir dit qu’il allait tuer Hae Min Lee]. That alone would quash Adnan’s conviction.” says Sarah Koenig.

In the midst of all these new elements, she discovers that another person has also been suspected of being the author of the murder. These two suspects could have acted together or separately, write the prosecutors in their motion calling for the quashing of the conviction of Adnan Syed.

This document also brings together several other elements (such as doubts about the reliability of the evidence presented during the trial and the discovery of new information not available at the time of the trial) which call into question the conviction of Mr. Syed. If they feel they want to continue to pursue these new leads, the prosecutors write that while awaiting the end of their investigation, “the incarceration of the accused, in view of the above information, would be a miscarriage of justice”.

According to Sarah Koenig, “Baltimore police have let the prosecutors in charge of the case know that they are going to put someone on this case. Somebody’s gonna try to talk to the two suspects Becky Feldman identified in the motion. I make no predictions about what will happen. But I know the likelihood that Adnan will ever be retried is, at best, slim.” When asked on CBS, Baltimore City Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she was still awaiting new DNA test results: “If they are inconclusive, I will certify that Adnan Syed is innocent. »

“A system that takes more than twenty years to correct itself”

These reversals are not easy for everyone. “For me, it’s not a podcast”Young Lee, the little brother of Hae Min Lee, testified during the hearing on Monday, when the murder of his sister was on the verge of becoming unsolved. “It’s been an endless nightmare for twenty years. When I think it’s over, it always ends up coming back. It’s killing me and it’s killing my mother. “. In her latest episode, Sarah Koenig nevertheless claims that Mr. Lee also said “that he had faith in the justice system, that he is not against a new investigation and that he told the judge to make the right decision”.

“Adnan’s case contains just about every chronic problem our system can spit out”concludes Sarah Koenig. “So even when the government publicly acknowledges its mistakes, it’s hard to rejoice in the triumph of fairness. Because we have built a system that takes more than twenty years to correct itself. And we’re just talking about a case. »

Because if “Serial” has inspired many copies, they are still few to have been able to change the course of a case. The BBC notes, however, the role played by three podcasts, which made it possible to relaunch three investigations. The first of them “In The Dark”, was interested in the case of Curtis Flowers, a man tried six times for the same four murders by the same prosecutor and whose death sentence had been canceled by the Supreme Court , in 2019, before the charges were finally dropped a year later. Like Adnan Syed, Curtis Flowers had spent twenty-three years in prison.

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