In 2000, 18-year-old Baltimore man Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. Syed was sentenced to life in prison and served close to 23 years in prison for the crime.
That was until this week, when Syed was released from prison at the age of 41 after his murder conviction was vacated by a Baltimore City Circuit Judge.
The vacation of his conviction doesn’t mean Syed is formally recognised as innocent. Instead, Judge Melissa Phinn expressed serious concern over Syed’s initial conviction based on new evidence as well as evidence that was not handed over to Syed’s defence team. Syed and his supporters have always maintained his innocence.
Syed has been released from prison, but Phinn has ordered him to remain on house arrest. The state has 30 days to make a decision as to whether Syed will face a new trial, or whether the case will be dismissed.
While Syed’s fate remains undetermined, he’s just one of many people around the globe who have spent time in prison for crimes they strongly contend that they did not commit.
Unfortunately, wrongful convictions do happen, and they often share similar underlying causes.
The case and the podcast
The murder of Hae Min Lee was the first case featured on the highly popular podcast series Serial, one of the pioneers of the true-crime podcast genre.
Lee was a senior high-school student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland. She disappeared one day after school, and her body was found in a nearby park one month later. Based on the results of the autopsy, Lee had been strangled.
As Lee and Syed had dated not long before the time of Lee’s death, Syed became a prime suspect. Other suspects emerged, but none were investigated as closely as Syed.
Cell tower records that placed Syed’s phone near the location of the park where Lee’s body was buried implicated him. A former classmate of Syed’s, Jay Wilds, also provided testimony indicating that he had assisted Syed with disposing Lee’s body. These two pieces of evidence ultimately formed the basis of the case against Syed that led to his eventual conviction.
After Syed was convicted, a close friend of the Syed family contacted reputable journalist Sarah Koenig in 2013, who independently investigated the case. Serial shone light on some of the oddities of the case, including the inconsistencies in the testimony given by Wilds and the lack of forensic evidence linking Syed to the crime.
For some, Serial consolidated the suspicion they held towards Syed, and for others, it cast serious doubt over his conviction.
The podcast’s popularity contributed to the ongoing fight for Syed’s freedom over the years.
How common are wrongful convictions?
One problem with wrongful convictions is that it’s impossible to know exactly how frequent they are. This is because many people in prison who say they are innocent never receive the opportunity to have their cases reviewed.
Even if we conservatively estimate that criminal convictions are accurate 99.5% of the time, an error rate of 0.5% could still result in thousands of wrongful convictions in the US alone each year.
In 2020, The National Registry of Exonerations in the United States reported over 2,600 exonerations following wrongful convictions across the United States since 1989. That number is always on the rise.
In the closest Australian repository of wrongful convictions, there were 71 documented wrongful convictions between 1922 and 2015.
What often leads to a wrongful conviction?
Wrongful convictions often share a common set of causes. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 and has overturned the wrongful convictions of 375 people in the United States using DNA evidence.
Based on the Innocence Project’s data, the factors that are most common in wrongful conviction cases are:
The National Registry of Exonerations has also identified misconduct as a common factor in known wrongful convictions.
In Syed’s case, issues with the validity of the cell phone evidence and the accomplice witness testimony provided by Wilds are among those common factors.
Based on known Australian wrongful conviction cases, the most common factors appear to be:
erroneous judicial instructions to the jury
forensic errors or misleading forensic evidence
incompetent defence representation
and false witness testimony, among others.
If Syed is indeed innocent of the murder he was convicted of, the 23 years of his life that he lost are a grave injustice. Lee’s family have also suffered tremendously and would continue to suffer with the lack of closure that comes with Syed’s wrongful conviction.
Any of us could be at risk of being wrongfully convicted, and the suffering that it comes with. Increasing education about what factors are common in wrongful conviction cases may hopefully mean we can make more informed decisions, should we ever hold an individual’s freedom like Adnan Syed’s in our own hands.
Authors: Hayley Cullen, Associate lecturer, University of Newcastle