Injustice in the Judicial System: The Unnerving Case Against Adnan Syed
For a moment, recall a time where you misplaced an item, no matter how small or big. Now imagine that your life depended on you find that item. Naturally, the human brain doesn’t remember every slight detail of one's life, such as where they place an item or what they did on an average day. The world-renowned podcast titled Serial, narrated by Sarah Koenig, tells the story of a young male who merely failed to remember exactly where he went/what he did/who he was with on a particular day, and was undeservedly convicted for murder as a result of a foggy alibi. In 1999, high school student Adnan Syed got detained for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Lee went missing in the mid-afternoon on January 13th, 1999, when she didn’t show up to her cousins’ school for her daily pickup. Four weeks later, she was discovered in Leakin Park, a park in the outskirts of Baltimore, solidifying that she was dead. In late February, Syed was suddenly arrested for her murder. It is reasonable to conclude that the judicial system ignored protocol and general wisdom when blaming Syed, and furthermore, that the judicial system is responsible for the incarceration of many innocent individuals.
The term judicial corruption addresses the “corruption-related misconduct of judges, through receiving or giving bribes, improper sentencing of convicted criminals, bias in the hearing and judgment of arguments and other such misconduct”. In Syed’s case, his life was placed in the hands of an unjust judicial system, and unfortunately, he paid the price for it. Perhaps one of the most well-known protocols of the judicial system in America is their phrase “innocent until proven guilty”, a protocol broken in his case. The only “evidence” the Prosecution used to convict Syed was the story from a boy named Jay Wilds, a so-called friend of Syed, who claimed that Adnan murdered Lee, and provided a detailed recollection of the day in question. He and Adnan smoked marijuana with each other and hung out in similar groups. In fact, Koenig pointed out Adnans’ close relationship to Jays’ girlfriend, Stephanie. Wilds, an odd and quirky individual as described by his and Syeds’ peers, claimed that he was with Adnan on the day of the disappearance. Jays' story was boggling for two reasons. The first was that many wondered why he would rat his best friend out, and the second was that he did not come to clean the first time he was questioned and that his facts did not line up. Wilds claims that he would have confessed earlier if it weren’t for Adnans’ threats against him. Jay dealt drugs, and he thought he would get in trouble if the police found out. However, in his second interrogation with the police, he said that Syed never initially threatened him, but then as time went by, Adnan became aggressive and Jay decided he was “too dangerous to be free”. According to his story, Adnan made Wilds assist him in the burial of Hae’s body in Leakin Park. Instead of seeking other suspects, the State took Jays’ story and blindly went with it, making up pieces as the trial progressed.
The most prominent issue in terms of evidence is that Jays’ story is inconsistent and inaccurate at best. There were so many discrepancies in Jays’ story that could have as easily disregarded it as they verified it. Some of the shakiest inconsistencies include the call log on Adnan’s phone, inaccurate recollection of time stamps, and multiple inconsistent variations of his story. Looking further, Jay said that Adnan gave him his phone and car and went back to school to establish his alibi, but there is a call logged during that time frame which must have been made by Syed. Titled the “Nisha call”, this call took place at 3:32 pm, with the duration being 2 minutes and 22 seconds. Koenig pays special attention to this call because it was the only call in that period of time that was to a person Jay didn’t know and therefore could be used to help prove Adnans’ innocence. As Koenig states, “it puts Jay and Adnan together in the middle of the afternoon when Adnan says he was not with Jay, he was back at school”. This is one of the inconsistencies in both Syed’s and Wilds’ recollections but could be used to deem Wilds’ timeline false. The major discrepancy in Jay’s story is the actual location that he claims Adnan murdered Lee. Initially, he claims that he was unaware of the location of the murder. Later, he switched up his story in his second interrogation, submitting that Syed killed Hae in a Best Buy parking lot. He maintained this story for the entirety of the trial, until a decade later in an article from Grazia in 2014, where writer Stevie Martin recalls an interview with Mr. Wilds, where Jay confirmed that the murder happened outside of Wilds’ grandmothers’ house. In the interview, Wilds said, “‘I didn’t tell the cops it was in front of my house because I didn’t want to involve my grandmother. I believe I told them it was in front of Cathy’s pseudonym house, but it was in front of my grandmother’s house”. The funny thing about this quote is that he never originally said that the murder happened outside of Cathy’s house, and furthermore, Cathy was never even mentioned in the original story. The high amount of inconsistencies in Wilds’ story indicates that he is unreliable and that he may have been lying to protect himself or someone else.
Although Jay could have been written off as totally unreliable, he did have one vital piece of information that the State held onto that validated his claims, which was that he was able to identify the location of where they hid Hae’s car, a component that the police hadn’t yet found. The State attested to the fact that this knowledge came from Jay alone, and used it to authenticate his story.
In Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts, an article was written by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfield, the author summarizes the story of a man who “was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl… an outcome that rested largely on the testimony of five eyewitnesses”. DNA testing proved his innocence, but unfortunately, he was incarcerated for nine years before the truth was revealed. Interestingly enough, this happens all too often. The piece says, “since the 1990s when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony”. This mind-blowing statistic shows how inconsistent the human brain can be in recalling events, even by accident. The most frustrating thing about reality such as this is that many innocent people are punished for crimes they have not committed, while the guilty party roams free. In regards to Syed’s case, this is a significant problem. When considering Wilds’ shaky recollection of January 13th, it is possible that he accidentally recalled the wrong information, though unlikely since it would be such a memorable event. Even in the face of uncertainty, Wilds’ testimony had the power to persuade the jury and judge to incarcerate Adnan Syed. Syeds’ intriguing scenario has influenced tremendous research on the tactics and reliances of the judicial system in cases like his.
As mentioned earlier, the judicial system in the United States prides itself in dubbing individuals “innocent until proven guilty”. In simpler words, the government would not punish an individual for a crime until there is sufficient evidence to prove guilt. Since the only ‘evidence’ the State had in Syeds’ case was Jay Wilds’ unreliable story, it can be reasonably concluded that the Prosecution (the State) ignored their own protocol and values when handling Syeds’ case and that the judicial system is responsible for the incarceration of potentially innocent individuals like Adnan Syed.
- Koenig, Sarah. “Season One.” Serial, 2014, serialpodcast.org/season-one.
- Martin, Stevie. “Jay From Serial Has Spoken Out And Changed His Story (Again).” Google, 2014