Baltimore: The Persecution of Adnan Syed is the Tip of the Iceberg

Image credit: Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service

After more than two decades in prison on a conviction that has generated widespread skepticism, Adnan Syed may have all of his charges dropped within the next few days, pending the results of a DNA test. Syed, aged 18 at the time, was convicted in Baltimore Circuit Court in 2000 for the murder of his high school ex-girlfriend. The trial became infamous through the wildly successful Serial podcast, along with numerous books, additional podcast series, and an HBO documentary.  Although Syed’s multiple attempted appeals in the last 20 years proved unsuccessful, he has gained far-reaching public support for his claim of innocence. In October 2021, the prosecutor’s office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby requested that his conviction be overturned, citing problems with evidence used in the original trial along with new evidence pointing towards alternative suspects. A judge overturned the conviction on September 19, giving Mosby’s office 30 days to decide whether the state will proceed with a new trial.

Syed’s release from prison and potential impending exoneration should be celebrated. He was in prison for 23 years based on a trial that the prosecutor’s office now says was defective because of its own actions. However, we must not be fooled into believing that Mosby is a champion of justice. Mosby claims to be a progressive prosecutor, but her actions tell us otherwise. A judge ruled there was a “presumption of vindictiveness” in her repeated prosecution of Keith Davis Jr., a man who has been called “the most aggressively prosecuted man in American history.” Davis claims to have been framed by the State’s Attorney for a murder he didn’t commit after he miraculously survived being shot in the face by the police while unarmed. The State’s Attorney’s office also routinely requests that over 80% of defendants awaiting trial, including children, be held in jail without bail.

Mosby recently lost reelection; she is facing trial in federal court for perjury and mortgage fraud; and she was recently held in contempt of court in the Keith Davis Jr. case. The popular sentiment in Baltimore politics that Mosby and her husband, the city council president, are corrupt may very well have contributed to her office’s attempt to use the widely-known Syed case to bolster her reputation as she faces trial.

When arguing that the conviction be vacated, Mosby’s office accused the Maryland Attorney General’s office of failing to provide evidence that they were legally required to turn over, which could have reinforced Syed’s appeals. The Attorney General aggressively shot back, insisting the files had been available the whole time and Mosby’s office never bothered to look. This argument between two powerful government attorneys’ offices is a sham — at the end of the day, the State’s Attorney and the Attorney General are on the same side. The thousands of innocent people stuck in prison across the United States cannot be construed as the fault of one or another branch of the legal apparatus. The entire system is fueled by white supremacy and a priority to keep poor, working, and oppressed people perpetually threatened and vulnerable. Sure, we may see the release of a high-profile defendant once in a while if it will benefit one politician’s reputation, but legal motions and court decisions of prosecutors and judges beholden to the One Percent can never bring us closer to justice.