September 20, 2022 - 5:57pm

Yesterday, a Baltimore judge vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, when both were high-school students. A combination of prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel from Syed’s defence lawyers, and the discovery of “new evidence”, according to the judge, had caused the state to “lose confidence in the integrity of the conviction.” Syed has been released after 23 years in prison, pending a decision by prosecutors on whether or not to re-try the case.

Syed, of course, is no ordinary criminal — he was the star of season one of Serial, a 2014 podcast that drew millions of listeners and nearly single-handedly launched the current booms in both podcasting and prestige true-crime content. And he was the subject of a follow-on documentary from HBO, The Case Against Adnan Syed. Until yesterday, Syed was likely the best-known convicted murderer in America.

While Serial never flatly asserted that Syed was innocent, the upshot of its coverage was clear enough — the prosecution’s case had holes, the defence lawyer was incompetent, and the evidence was not enough to send Syed away for life. As series lead Sarah Koenig told the New York Times this morning:

There was no way for us to say definitively what happened. But what we were pointing out in our story was that the timeline of the case and the evidence in the case had serious problems. Which meant the people who convicted Adnan of murder, they didn’t know what happened either.

And so this kid goes to prison for life at 18, based on a story that wasn’t accurate. That’s what we wanted people to think about: even setting aside the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, are we OK with a system that operates like that?

- Sarah Koenig

Indeed, this kind of can’t-prove-a-negative question-begging has been par for the course in the media coverage of Syed’s case. It is reflected in the judge’s motion to vacate, which relied heavily on the storylines forwarded by both the podcast and the HBO series.

The tactic, generally speaking, has been to lead with an extremely strong version of the defence’s case, chin-stroking meditations about the unreliability of human memory and the problems of the criminal justice system, and humanising interviews with and about Syed. Then you present a watered-down version of the prosecution’s case, zeroing in on minor points of uncertainty  that are irrelevant to the question of guilt but seed doubts as to the reliability of any evidence in the case. You toss in vague innuendo about prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias, and incompetent defence. Then you throw up your hands and say, “Well, he may have killed her, but who can really say, and should we really have a justice system that sends people away based on less-than-certain evidence?”

Well, yes we should. No one could be convicted of anything under the standard advocated by Koenig and others. That is why radical prosecutors have adopted similar tactics to exonerate guilty people in order to prove a point about our “broken” criminal justice system. Indeed, the motion to vacate in Syed’s case is a by-the-book example of what Thomas Hogan has described as “The Exoneration Hustle”, in which reform-minded prosecutors artificially manufacture grave doubts about what are, in reality, solid and just convictions.

Despite all the supposed doubts raised by Serial, HBO, and now Judge Melissa Phinn, Syed’s conviction was solid and just. An accomplice testified at trial that he had helped Syed bury Lee’s body in the public park where it was discovered, and this testimony was corroborated by cell tower evidence showing Syed’s phone in the park on the night in question. As that witness, Jay Wilds, told the Intercept in 2014:

There’s nothing that’s gonna change the fact that this guy drove up in front of my grandmother’s house, popped the trunk, and had his dead girlfriend in the trunk. Anything that’s going to make [Syed] innocent doesn’t involve me.
- Jay Wilds

None of the questions raised in the years since — can cell-phone tower records provide an exact location? Does Wilds remember the exact time when Syed first showed him Hae’s body? — have done anything to undermine these damning, overlapping pieces of evidence.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet