When I first heard about the podcast Serial I refused to watch it. From the little I had read in the media it appeared about yet another guy that killed his girlfriend trying to get away with murder. After listening to two episodes I was hooked; hooked on the story, hooked on the mystery, and hooked on finding answers. It’s the ultimate true crime whodunnit, and it’s so well presented that its easy to forget that there are real people involved in this case. Hae Min Lee, a senior in high school who never had a chance to begin her life. Her family, who are most likely still grieving her loss today. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend accused of her murder and currently serving his sixteenth year of a life sentence. And the couple’s friends whose lives ultimately changed overnight in January 1999, when Hae went missing.
Since Serial first dropped in 2014 dozens of spin off podcasts have followed up leads, questioned the methods of prosecutors and police and continued to create public pressure to free Adnan Syed. Increasingly, it looks as though Adnan was wrongfully convicted, and that Hae’s murder may ultimately go unsolved.
For those that haven’t listened to Serial, the State of Maryland’s only piece of evidence was in the form of a witness, drug dealer Jay Wilds, whose testimony has changed regularly and has now largely been discredited. As recently as December 2014 he changed his story yet again to fit new evidence that emerged on the Undisclosed podcast, in which a medical examiner stated that Jay’s timeline was impossible given the facts surrounding lividity of Hae’s body. The state has changed their theory of the case nearly as many times, leaving many to question how, in the face of overwhelming evidence supporting his innocence, they arrested, charged and prosecuted Adnan Syed for the murder in the first place.
The case raises questions about the culture of the Baltimore Police Department and District Attorney. In particular, several Brady violations have been identified by legal experts, a witness with a conflicting story to Jay Wilds’ story was ignored and then lied to in order to avoid her taking the stand, dozens of pieces of evidence were knowingly overlooked and the state failed to follow standard investigatory procedures – like firming up a timeline of Hae’s day, subpoenaing relevant phone records, taking full and detailed notes of interviews and ensuring the independence of their experts. At one point, a detective on the case was documenting cell phone tower testing with the expert as he performed his tests, choosing to note only 13 of the thousands of tests because they happened to fit the State’s version of the case (which has now been debunked). Based on evidence uncovered by the Undisclosed podcast team, this behaviour is not unique to Adnan’s case, leading many observers to question whether his freedom was sacrificed purely in the interest of expedient case clearance.
Although our justice system in Australia is very different to the US, and indeed different jurisdictions in the United States vary considerably in terms of their approach, there is a bigger issue at play that begs attention; as our justice systems evolve, are we losing sight of its most important goal – to protect the public from crime and prosecute the offenders? Are we, the public, so attuned to the good guys winning on our television screens and in movie theatres that we are too trusting of those who have sworn to protect us? Many would argue that even if Adnan Syed is innocent, the win at all costs attitude of the prosecution and detectives probably saved hundreds of lives through the guilty criminals they were able to put behind bars, but does the end really justify the means when it comes to justice? Do we even know what the foundation upon which our ideal justice system would be built might look like?
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The most likely scenario in the Adnan Syed case is that he will accept an Alford plea, which allows him to take a plea deal for his release in prison without saying he is guilty. The prosecutors and detectives will face no consequences for perverting justice. Adnan may not be eligible for compensation because he would have accepted a plea. And worst of all, there will be no justice for Hae. Her murderer will never be punished for his or her crime.
The very fact that this type of a legal loophole exists suggests a huge flaw in the so called justice system. The fact that enough evidence can be found to potentially exonerate a prisoner and the state isn’t forced to respond with irrefutable evidence is appalling. The fact that it happens enough that a process had to be developed to protect the state from it is terrifying. But perhaps the most disheartening thing about this case is that in a case like Adnan’s most prisoners accept the plea because the alternative is to spend more years in prison while fighting in court. Even though the State has no evidence and the defence has an abundance. As sure as Hae’s life was taken, so was Adnan Syed’s youth – that he may spend another year or two or three behind bars proving what has already been thoroughly proven is an injustice beyond comprehension. It is reminiscent of the justice meted out in a trial by water in the middle ages – the guilty swim free to be hung, and the innocent sink to their death. And in the end, there will be no justice for anybody.
The cost of justice is eternal vigilance, but it may be the public that needs to keep those within the system from creating the biggest injustice of all.