Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
One of the founding principles of this nation is that it is a greater travesty when one innocent person is found guilty than if ten guilty men are set free. Yet, the Adnan Syed case shows the shakiness of this foundational tenet.
The long, winding case of Syed has been hotly contested for more than twenty years. He was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, based on the statement of a former friend, Jay Wilds, who testified that he helped Syed bury Min Lee’s body. Since then, Wilds has changed his story about that night multiple times and no other physical evidence has been found linking Syed to the crime. This case has garnered national attention since the Serial podcast highlighted the dubious evidence that Syed’s conviction was founded on, which put this injustice into the limelight.
The mounting pressure from the national audience fixated on this case built momentum toward a retrial that overturned Syed’s conviction. However, the Maryland appellate court halted that momentum by overturning the decision to drop the charges against Syed, citing that the victim’s brother, who lives in California, was only given one business day’s notice to attend the trial by Baltimore city prosecutors.
There is no doubt that the rights of a victim’s family are important, however, allowing a man to stay behind bars for a conviction that would have been overturned barring a mistake with no bearing on his guilt is unacceptable.
The Maryland court system must not use this one-off case as a binding legal precedent in the future. The Mayland court system cannot emphasize the treatment of victims’ families over delivering a just verdict to the defendant.
I do not want my sentiment to be mistaken as a lack of compassion for the horrifying ordeal the Lee family had to go through. I am not trying to take away anything from the family’s process of mourning their loss. All murder is senseless, but especially so when the victim of the crime is so young. I desperately hope the perpetrator of the crime is apprehended and put behind bars.
With that said, my empathy for the victim’s family does not overshadow the glaring injustice this ruling poses for the defendant.
The family’s attorneys claim Min Lee’s brother may have played an important role in the case, as he would have either been able to testify about information presented in the trial or help establish the impact this case had on the victim’s family.
On that first point, the opinion released by the Maryland appellate court indicates the Baltimore city court went out of its way in allowing the victim’s brother to address the court, as victim’s families typically do not testify in this type of proceeding. This strongly suggests that the victim’s brother suggests that he did not have any additional evidence for the court. In lieu of attending the trial in-person, he was still given the opportunity to call into the trial via zoom, where he was able to testify to any information relevant to the proceeding. Thus, while the victim’s brother’s presence could have helped the family’s grieving process through the tragic loss of Hae Min Lee, it did not clearly have any tangible impact on the court’s verdict.
Further, even if the brother did testify on the emotional impact of the loss of his sister, that does not establish Syed’s culpability in this case. Normally, in cases like this, family impact statements are presented after a guilty verdict, when they can help the jury decide the perpetrator’s sentencing.
Moreover, it’s highly atypical for rulings in court proceedings to be overturned by clerical errors in handling victims’ families not testifying toward evidence. The silver lining is that the court conceded that Syed was to be released until the new retrial began. But this is only a hollow reward because a different jury could see this case differently and rule against vacating Syed’s convictions.
It does not make sense for a defendant who was cleared of this crime to have to stand trial for it again. What I am gravely worried about is a future where defendants who are most likely innocent have to worry about their cases being contested on technicalities relating to the mishandling of victims’ families that did not influence the outcome of the trial.
If another case arises where the victim’s family contests a verdict on the basis of not feeling heard in court, Maryland’s appellate court needs to buck the precedent set by this case and rule in favor of the verdict rightfully reached in a court of law.
There is no way to overstate the catastrophic impact that Hae Min Lee’s brutal death has had on her family and the Baltimore community at large. Yet, that impact should not impede justice from prevailing in this case. The Maryland criminal court system and its prosecutors have decided that there is not enough evidence to find Adnan Syed guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the murder of Hae Min Lee. As such, in the name of justice, the Maryland court system cannot use this case as a precedent to keep defendants’ lives hanging in the balance.
Ravi Panguluri is a sophomore computer science and statistics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.