Justice is kaleidoscopic. Its definition generates a myriad of concepts, none of which are precise and definitive.
But the case of Adnan Syed offers a timeline of injustice inflicted by the massive power of the State.
The Syed saga began in 1999 in Baltimore, Maryland.
On January 13 of that year, a Woodlawn High School student, 19-year-old Hae Min Lee, disappeared shortly after leaving the school that afternoon to pick up a younger cousin from an elementary school.
Lee never arrived at the elementary school. She was reported missing by her parents.
Murder of Hae Min Lee
On February 9, 1999, Lee’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park. Her partially buried body was seen by a passerby who notified the police. An autopsy revealed she had died from strangulation.
What had been a “disappearance” investigation by local law enforcement quickly evolved into a homicide investigation. That investigation developed three suspects in Lee’s murder.
But the investigation’s primary focus turned on 17-year-old Adnan Syed—an ex-boyfriend of Lee that dated her through most of 1998 before they broke up at the end of the year. That investigative focus began three days after Lee’s body was discovered when the police received an anonymous phone call suggesting that Syed had killed Lee because he was angry over their romantic breakup.
The police subpoenaed Syed’s cell phone records. His call log listed two individuals he had called after Lee’s disappearance: Jay Wilds and Jennifer Pusateri. Both were questioned by the police. Wilds eventually confessed that he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body in the park. Pusateri told police that Wilds had confided in her about his role in burying Lee’s body.
Police Arrest Adnan Syed
Based on this information, Syed was arrested on February 9, 1999.
The police buried in their files the information about the two other suspects. They formed a hard, fast, gut decision that Syed was Lee’s killer.
Syed was subsequently charged as an adult for first-degree murder and related crimes.
On December 19, 1999, Syed’s first trial, a three-day event, ended in a mistrial after the jury overheard a remark by the trial judge calling his defense attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, a “liar.”
On February 25, 2000, a second jury convicted Syed of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and an array of consecutive and concurrent sentences for the related offenses. Gutierrez represented Syed at this trial as well.
Jay Wilds was the State’s chief witness. He told the jury that he helped Syed bury Lee in the shallow grave in Leakin Park and that Syed confessed to killing the young lady. Wilds also told the jury that he confided in Jennifer Pusateri that he helped bury Lee but had no part in her death.
Wilds gave the police three different statements before settling on the one presented to the jury.
Syed appealed his conviction to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He raised several statutory and constitutional violations—two of which focused on prosecutorial misconduct, namely, that the State suppressed favorable evidence and knowingly presented false testimony at trial.
On March 19, 2003, in a lengthy, detailed 57-page opinion, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals denied Syed’s direct appeal. That same year, the Maryland Court of Appeals refused to review the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion, letting Syed’s conviction stand.
Syed’s trial attorney, Gutierrez, had been disbarred with her consent by that time. She died of a heart attack after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis the year after Syed’s conviction was upheld.
Syed’s case went dormant for the next seven years as he served the life sentence in a Maryland prison.
In May 2010, however, with a new attorney, C. Justin Brown, Syed filed a post-conviction application under Maryland law seeking a new trial.
The application alleged nine specific instances in which his trial counsel, Gutierrez, was ineffective before and during his second trial—most notably of which was Gutierrez’s failure to interview an alibi witness whose testimony would have exonerated Syed.
The trial court conducted a two-day hearing on the post-conviction application in October 2012.
On December 30, 2013, the court denied Syed’s post-conviction application. On February 6, 2015, Syed sought and secured leave to appeal that denial to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The appeals court issued a limited remand order on May 18, 2015, allowing Syed an opportunity to petition the trial court to reopen the post-conviction proceedings to have further proceedings on the alibi issue.
On August 24, 2015, Attorney Brown filed an independent motion to reopen the post-conviction proceedings. The motion presented newly discovered evidence that questioned the reliability of data from Syed’s cell phone that had contributed to his conviction.
On November 6, 2015, the trial court ruled that the “interest of justice” demanded that the post-conviction proceedings should be reopened to consider troubling questions about misconduct by prosecutors and ineffective assistance by Gutierrez.
Thereafter, the trial court conducted a five-day hearing in February 2016 concerning the merits of these two serious constitutional issues. The evidence, including Syed’s alibi witness and the overwhelming evidence of ineffective assistance, presented at that hearing convinced the trial court to reverse Syed’s convictions and order a new trial.
Nearly two years later, on March 29, 2018, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision granting Syed a new trial.
The State appealed this decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court of criminal appeals. On March 19, 2019, that court, in a 4-3 decision, reversed the lower court’s grant of a new trial and reinstated Syed’s convictions. The court agreed that Cristina Gutierrez had provided ineffective assistance but that Syed had not been “prejudiced” by her deficient performance.
Significantly, in the fall of 2018, after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision granting the new trial, DNA analysis was conducted on 12 items of evidence found at the Leakin Park crime scene, including Lee’s necklace. The results revealed that neither Syed nor Wilds’ DNA was on any of the evidence tested.
While his case meandered up and down the Maryland judicial system, Syed became an international cause célèbre after his case was featured on the true-crime podcast “Serial” in the Fall of 2014 and a 2019 HBO crime docuseries called “The Case Against Adnan Syed.”
The Serial podcasts were downloaded worldwide more than 100 million times, placing every facet of the Syed case in the world arena and earning the podcast the prestigious 2014 Peabody Award.
The national and international media attention, along with the 2019 negative DNA results, no doubt influenced Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn to order new DNA testing after the local prosecutor’s office, and Syed’s defense team requested the order. Both parties believed the most recent DNA technology could produce results that could exculpate Syed.
State’s Attorney Files Motion to Vacate Syed’s Conviction
However, on September 15, 2022, without waiting for the DNA results, Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed a 21-page motion to vacate Syed’s convictions. The motion admitted pretrial prosecutorial misconduct—the suppression of the two “alternative suspects”—prompted the State’s move.
The motion also referenced the ineffective assistance of counsel Syed received and the unreliability of Syed’s cell phone data as additional reasons why the prosecutor had lost “confidence in the integrity of the conviction.”
While the motion said the “interests of justice” demanded a new trial, the motion stopped short of announcing the prosecutor’s office was convinced of Syed’s actual innocence.
Judge Phinn had heard enough.
On September 19, 2022, she vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered his release from prison into home detention. Judge Phinn gave prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry Syed.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and the Lee family blasted Mosby’s motion and Judge Phinn’s decision to vacate Syed’s conviction.
Attorney General Frosh’s criticism missed the mark by a mile, focusing his anger over the finding of prosecutorial misconduct.
The Syed case was riddled with official misconduct (both police and prosecutor suppressed the existence of alternative suspects); judicial bias (the first trial ended in mistrial because the judge called Syed’s attorney a “liar” in the presence of the jury); and ineffective assistance of Syed’s defense counsel who, while defending Syed, was depositing money from her clients to pay medical bills for the terminal illness that killed her two years after Syed’s conviction.
The decisions by prosecutor Mosby and Judge Phinn had nothing to do with “actual innocence.” The “interests of justice” demanded that the two public officials fulfill their constitutional duties to vacate Syed’s blatantly unconstitutional convictions.
This case illustrates many inherent problems deeply entrenched within the criminal justice system. Law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct coupled with ineffective assistance of counsel, followed by decades of litigation disputing issues that, in a system dedicated to justice, should have immediately caused a new trial. Instead, Adnan Syed was incarcerated for two decades for a crime he probably did not commit, while evidence, witnesses, and suspects were most likely lost forever.
This case is a real tragedy for two families, Lee’s and Syed’s. Both have suffered injustice and pain that could have been avoided had the police and prosecutors conducted a thorough investigation and played by the Constitution’s rules. Instead, because officials went with their gut and focused immediately upon Syed, going as far as to cover up other potential suspects, real justice may be forever out of reach for the Lee family.