Adnan Syed’s case is unique. Withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence is not

Adnan Syed (center) leaves the Baltimore courthouse on Monday after pleading guilty to the 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast serial was vacated.

Brian Witt / AP


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Adnan Syed (center) leaves the Baltimore courthouse on Monday after pleading guilty to the 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast serial was vacated.

Brian Witt / AP

The case of Adnan Syed, who served more than 20 years in prison on a murder charge before his conviction on Monday, is unique because it has received heavy publicity via the hit true-crime podcast. serial, But one reason he was set free – because prosecutors withheld evidence that might have acquitted him – is not uncommon.

In deciding to release Syed from prison, Circuit Judge Melissa Finn in Baltimore relied on a comprehensive review of the case by prosecutors in Maryland that, among other things, found officers to be at least two alternate suspects in addition to Syed in the 1999 murder. knew about. Hee Min Lee, an ex-girlfriend of his.

But according to a motion to vacate the conviction filed by prosecutors, prosecutors kept information about alternate suspects from defense attorneys. They now have 30 days to decide whether to pursue a fresh trial or drop charges against Syed, who has long maintained his innocence.

Syed’s case highlights how the withholding of potentially guilty evidence by police and prosecutors can often lead to wrongful convictions. Critics say the lack of accountability and transparency has made it easier for prosecutors to avoid such official misconduct, as innocent individuals brought before the justice system are forced to pay – at times for the cost of their lives. With years – for the crimes that they did not promise.

Withholding potentially guilty evidence violates a key legal principle

Such conduct is a violation of what is known as the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to turn in any evidence that could help exonerate a criminal defendant.

In the motion to vacate, two Brady violations were cited: prosecutors’ failure to disclose evidence pointing to any alternate suspects and the failure to disclose that one of the suspects in the original investigation called Lee had threatened to kill.

Prosecutors said in their proposal, “Considering the totality of the evidence now available, information about an alternate suspect would be helpful to the defense as it would help to prove the alternate suspect’s defense that is consistent with the defense strategy at trial.” was.”

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Adnan Syed’s mother (left) Shamim Syed celebrates with others outside Cummings Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday.

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Adnan Syed’s mother (left) Shamim Syed celebrates with others outside Cummings Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday.

Brian Witt / AP

Cases in which prosecutors don’t follow the rule are “shockingly common,” says Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project.

“It’s not just a Baltimore problem, it’s not just a Maryland problem. It’s something that is rampant across the country,” she says.

There were at least 2,400 exonerations in the US between 1989 and 2019, and in 44% of cases it was possible withholding of missed evidence that resulted in the release of a prisoner, according to a 2020 paper from the National Registry of Exonerations Is.

“Prosecution misconduct and police misconduct are the most common contributing factors”, says Simon Cole, director of the registry. “And within that, the concealment of evidence, which is alleged [Syed’s] case is the most common subtype of official misconduct.”

Prosecutors Have Too Much Waiver

In many jurisdictions, prosecutors can keep their files secret and the decision of what to defend is left to the prosecutors themselves, says Laura Nireider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. .

“We must rely on individual prosecutors to decide which evidence to disclose for the defense and which evidence to withhold,” she says. “It can be difficult for any prosecutor to objectively decide which evidence is really material and really defamatory.”

In a 2017 interview with NPR, journalist and Yale University law professor Emily Bezelon compared the situation to something akin to the honor system.

“We’re talking about a situation in which they can see what’s in their files, but the defense can’t see it. And the judges can’t see it either. So they’re really making this very important call.” Doing it on your own.”

But there is an ongoing effort to implement more open search, Nireider says.

“These are systems in which prosecutors allow defense lawyers to look at their files in a more comprehensive manner,” she says. It will “ensure that Brady material is changed and to ensure that defendants like Adnan can mount the strongest and fairest defense available to them.”

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