Adnan Syed was cleared of charges on September 19, 2022, after more than two decades of being convicted of first-degree murder for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, after a year-long investigation with new DNA evidence and racial bias emerged in the case. The truth is, we are here today because it didn´t happen 23 years ago.
In 1999, the body of an 18-year-old Hae Min Lee was found buried in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, leading to Syed being charged with her murder and given a life sentence at the age of 19 years old. For nearly 25 years, Syed was in prison serving his sentence. The case gained massive media attention through an unusual source for the time: a podcast.
The hit podcast called Serial went viral in 2014 after shedding light on the American criminal justice system's flaws regarding the validity of the evidence and the fairness of the conviction. A family friend of the Syed´s, a Baltimore-based lawyer named Rabia Chaudry, got in contact with the journalist, Sarah Koenig, requesting to re-investigate Lee's murder.
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The show premiered in 2014 with the first season being a detailed investigation by Sarah Koening of what happened the night Lee was killed. In the podcast, Koening points out the fact that there were two other solid suspects at the time of Syed's arrest, both with a history of violence towards women. This information was hidden from the jury. Additionally, Syed was seen at the library by a friend of his around the time that the murder likely happened, but this friend never got the chance to testify.
Recently, several rounds of tactile DNA testing that revealed Syed's DNA was not present on any of the victim's clothing that had never been analyzed before in the time of the trial. Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby acknowledge and apologize to the family of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed.
"The DNA results confirmed what we have already known and what underlies all of the current proceedings: that Adnan is innocent and lost 23 years of his life serving time for a crime he did not commit." said Erica Suter, Syed's lawyer, in a statement on Tuesday after the charges against her client were dropped.
Many advocates and lawyers questioned the way race and religion was brought up by prosecutors on the trial that came to an end in 2000. Simran Jeet Singh, director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program, told NBC News. “The evidence didn’t necessarily stack up, but people’s assumptions about the likelihood that he would do something like that played a big role,”.
Attorneys for the state of Maryland even suggest he committed the crime because of his religious beliefs by stating stereotypes often used against Muslim men. Unfortunately, Syed’s background as a Muslim from a Pakistani immigrant family has weaponized the state used to help convict him and shaped the trial itself. Mano Raju, a member of the South Asian Bar Association of North America and known as a San Francisco public defender told NBC News. “It seemed like what the prosecution did is it made an intentional choice to substitute Islamophobia and racial bias for proof.”
Raju commented on NBC News about how lawyers deliberately chose their courtroom language. As a defense attorney, he is well aware of the fact that when people of color are charged with a crime, race immediately becomes a factor, it has become a pattern with a systemic racism that’s tied to the criminal justice system. Raju said, “What the prosecutors try to do is make up for a lack of evidence, and they hope that fear will fill the gap.”
Lucky for California, in 2020 it passed the Racial Justice Act, which empowers the defender to challenge the disparities between races in arrest, charges and sentences.
Evidence of racial inequality in the criminal justice system and biased decisions of justice system actors resulting in high rates of imbalance and unjust arrests affecting real humans are well documented throughout history. The podcast Serial was able to open the conversation for us to ask the right questions: when is the courtroom going to be free from any type of discrimination and how could the system improve? How many cases like Adnan Syed´s story does it take to actually question the fairness and objectivity of the American crime system?