Twenty-three long years ago in 1999, Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Painted by the press as a violent and jealous ex-lover, the then seventeen-year-old Syed was convicted of strangling Hae Min Lee in a case of first-degree murder and sentenced to life plus thirty years. However, after 23 years, the unexpected attention of the award-winning podcast Serial, the case being reopened several times, and Adnan Syed maintaining his innocence throughout, on the basis of new evidence a judge demanded the release of Adnan Syed and he left court as a free man on September 20, 2020.
However, according to many Muslim Americans who have taken to Twitter, this is not a simple tale of a miscarriage of justice eventually righted and justice prevailing. But instead, they argue that the arduous story of Adnan Syed is one of a jury’s unconscious racial bias. They claim that despite a lack of concrete evidence, they assumed Adnan Syed’s guilt in the violent murder in large part due to his Pakistani and Muslim background and the damaging unconscious or conscious stereotypes that revolve around Muslim men. While many have celebrated the release of Adnan Syed, others have also commented on the sad reality that there are numerous other Muslim Americans and other people of colour who have been wrongfully convicted. They argue that this is in large part due to the stereotypes that surround their particular ethnic or religious group. More depressingly, however, is the realisation that if it wasn’t for the wildly popular podcast Serial shedding light on his case, Adnan like many other wrongfully convicted persons in America would have continued to wilt away in jail, ignored by a flawed justice system that refuses to acknowledge its mistakes.
From Prosecution to Podcast
The 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee was tragic. The 18-year-old high school senior was found strangled to death and buried in the woods. Adnan Sayed, who was the former boyfriend and college mate of Hae Min Lee, quickly became the main suspected and was painted by the prosecution as a jealous and hateful ex-lover. Adnan Syed was subsequently found guilty of Hae Min Lee’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment and thirty years for premeditated murder, kidnapping, robbery, and false imprisonment.
Syed appealed his conviction in 2003, applied for post-conviction relief in 2010, and pursued numerous other legal challenges to establish his innocence, to no avail. However, fifteen years after Adnan Syed began his imprisonment, a podcast entitled Serial began to reassess the case against Syed and question his guilt. Serial soon became wildly popular and amassed 340 million downloads, bringing immense attention to Adnan Syed’s case. The podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig led to a further examination of the DNA evidence, spearheaded by the Innocence Project, and the further questioning of the prosecution’s evidence against Syed.
Many listeners to the podcast began to allege that although a lack of clarity may make it hard to establish either guilt or innocence, it seemed the jury and prosecution brought into and constructed a narrative to establish his guilt that heavily relied upon Islamophobic tropes surrounding Muslim men. For people of colour more broadly, but also pertaining specifically to Muslim men, Islamophobic stereotypes associated with aggression and violence are understood to pose a considerable problem in terms of unconscious biases in the courtroom.
Encouraged by the investigations into the case by Serial, Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn vacated Adnan Syed’s conviction due to the state failing to share evidence with him that could have aided his original defence trial. Met by a cheering crowd and freed from his handcuffs and the bars of the prison cell he had been in for the last 23 years, Adnan Syed has temporarily been put under house arrest until a retrial can take place in the coming thirty days to reassess the case.
It is important to note that the judge’s decision is in no way an indication of his guilt or innocence, but instead an acknowledgment of previous failings of the judiciary system that did not give him a fair trial. Additionally, the new trial is also in response to the prosecutors original case that relied on mobile phone location date, that has subsequently been proven to be unreliable, and two ‘alternative suspects’ that had emerged from a review of the case.
While Adnan Syed may see retrials and maybe even prison again, the increased attention his case was given by the podcast Serial has afforded him the opportunity to challenge the flaws and failings of his original prosecution. Racial biases that often paint black, Arab, and Muslim men as violent are depressingly prevalent in the United States and much of the world.
Without the podcast Serial, Adnan Syed would arguably have never been able to argue against what he always alleged is his wrongful conviction and would still be spending year after year stuck in a grey prison cell. However, the Georgia Innocence Project predict that between four and six percent of the United States total prison population of two million are wrongfully convicted. But these 80,000 to 120,000 wrongfully convicted prisoners don’t all have a Peabody Award-winning and iTunes number one podcast with 340 million downloads to back them up.
In the case of African Americans and Arab Americans, the level of wrongful convictions is on a whole other, far more depressing level. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, African Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder, 3.5 more times likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug procession, and on average spend a much greater period in prison for their alleged crimes. Figures for Arab Americans, however, while not as stark as those for African Americans, nevertheless show a racial bias in which Arab men are pre-judged to be violent and unpredictable. Particularly following the beginning of the War on Terror, which saw the institutionalisation of racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims and Western media outlets portraying their own Muslim communities as an untrustworthy fifth column with dual loyalties, the unfair treatment of Arabs and Muslims in the US’s judiciary system only increased.