Serial appeal illuminates need for post-conviction due process

By Adrianne Glenn / Columnist

The popular crime podcast “Serial” is in the news once again — the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed to revisit Adnan Syed’s homicide case in June. This individual victory for due process is not rave-worthy, though. 

Syed was sentenced to life in prison 15 years ago for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Syed is receiving an appeal immediately after “Serial”’s spurt of popularity prompted questions on the power of podcasting. The appeal also demands that we consider the millions of people who are in Syed’s position, but do not have this sort of coverage. These typical, average people simply cannot afford competent legal counsel, much like Syed. This leads to a corrupt judicial system that is more likely to convict the poor.

The appeal is not just about correcting a single injustice. It gives light to a deeper issue regarding the role money plays in the justice system that cannot be fixed with media attention, but, instead, should be mended by institutions that provide further investigation into other unfair trials across the country. Due process should not only be given to those who can afford it or those who are visible — it is a right for all.

There is a shortage of organizations that aid those who are in Syed’s pre-podcast position and who cannot afford to buy their own freedom, but these are the institutions that ultimately fix the larger-scale issue of injustice. Instead of championing a single podcast for correcting a single case, it is essential to recognize and promote groups, like the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC), that work solely to uncover the truth in post-convinction declerations of innocence. 

One of the integral parts of host Sarah Koenig’s investigation was revealing that Syed’s lawyer, Christina Gutierrez, hastily prepared his case. Gutierrez neglected to contact Asia McClain, a potential key witness for Syed. McClain’s testimony could have been crucial in Syed’s case because she had previously seen Syed at the local library during the time frame in which Lee was killed.

Twenty people lodged claims against Gutierrez with the Clients’ Security Trust Fund, proving that Syed was not the only low-income client she cheated. Accordingly, she was disbarred in 2001.

In response to Gutierrez’s loss of license, Syed had tried to put together a case for a potential appeal. He pointed out that Gutierrez did not even try to make a plea deal and that she failed to contact a potential alibi.

Underlying financial issues led Syed to use such an unreliable lawyer. After filing the official appeal post-podcast, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed to hear Syed’s 15-year-old case. The podcast and the funds associated with it played a part in Syed’s chance at a fair trial, which reflects the shortcomings of the justice system.

This means that there will be a session in June that consists of oral arguments from the state and from Syed’s side. Depending on how the session goes, there could be a chance to have McClain testify. This creates potential for additional evidence to surface or, if the court agrees that there is more to this case than previously discussed, there is the potential of a completely new trial. 

While it is undoubtedly promising that Syed is a step closer to a fair trial in which he would only be incarcerated if he was found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, it is disheartening to consider how he earned it. 

After the podcast gained popularity, campaigns were set up to crowdfund for Syed and #FreeAdnan has become a hashtag on various social media platforms. A tweet from @CurtisBrownJr reveals the audience’s excitement to see Syed get justice. “Just listened to the entire #serialpodcast on a road trip-crazy case & too many holes for a life sentence #FreeAdnan,” Brown, Jr. said. Listeners everywhere are eager to support Syed and take his side. 

This appeal shows the importance of having money when you’re up against our justice system. Trials are about who can argue better, or, rather, who has the most money to pay a lawyer. Those who are unable to pay for higher-quality attorneys are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. 

While poor defendants may use a public defender through their constitutional rights, there are not enough of them for the number of convicted criminals in the country, according to a 2013 study by Mother Jones politics. On average, a public defender would need about 3,035 work hours — a year and a half— to do a year’s worth of work, considering the caseload they’d have to take on to relieve public need. 

It seems entirely possible that Syed would have stood a chance in court if Gutierrez would have garnered a better defense. It is worth noting that when Koenig used NPR’s resources and funding to support this investigation, she gained Syed thousands of dollars of support from all over the world. 

People are wrongfully convicted every day and will die in prison because no one is doing a podcast about them. To celebrate Syed’s appeal is to congratulate a system in which people who earn less money face far more inequality and injustice than those with the privlege of earning higher wages. 

Instead of praising the podcast for fixing this issue as if this is an isolated incident, organizations like the NCIIC should be celebrated for working full time to get to the bottom of post-conviction declarations of innocence. 

The NCIIC is an organization that further investigates cases like Syed’s and tries to bring justice to ambiguous cases. The NCIIC has received more than 1,642 submissions since they opened in 2006 and have located evidence that was not previously identified in more than 18 different cases. 

Similarly, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is a nonprofit corporation housed by Temple University Beasley School of Law that reviews trials, consults with experts and uncovers lost or overlooked documents. 

These organizations seek to cater to unheard voices in an effort to remedy the corrupt justice system. 

Instead of acting as if this podcast fixed anything more than Syed’s case alone, it is important to support and promote the implementation of state-run organizations that promote due process. 

Adrianne Glenn primarily writes about social and cultural issues for The Pitt News. 

Write to Adrianne at [email protected]