On Monday a judge in Baltimore overturned the 2000 conviction of Adnan Syed, who was jailed for murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Syed’s case has been in the spotlight ever since he became the subject of the 2014 investigative podcast series The Case Against Adnan Syed, hosted by Sarah Koenig. The programme, part of the Serial strand, was a sensation, with some 80 million downloads. Koenig’s detailed investigation, a format that left listeners feeling as though they were also trying to solve the case and an overwhelming sense that Syed’s conviction was unsafe, created a ratings winner. But a hit podcast alone is not enough to release a man from prison. Instead, it was dogged, slow-moving legal work that finally led judge Melissa Phinn to release Syed (pictured) from jail after concluding that the original trial was unfair because the state had failed to disclose key evidence. Syed might face a retrial.
What is clear in this case – and in many others involving unsafe convictions in the US and beyond – is that to challenge the court system, you need determined advocates and luck. That’s why Syed has in some ways been fortunate. His story made for a good show and he had the backing of the Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit that works to free people who have been wrongly convicted. The project has been involved in numerous exonerations, including of many people who were awaiting execution.
The Innocence Project estimates that at least 1 per cent of the US prison population has been wrongly convicted. If correct, there are 20,000 people waiting for help. That’s why it is only structural changes to the unflinching machinery of a judicial system in which people are encouraged to confess with the promise of lighter sentences – and where wealth and race are still determinants of what happens to you – that will make people feel confident that bad convictions can be overturned.
Andrew Tuck is editor in chief of Monocle.