I recently read the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals in State v. Adnan Syed, in which the court held that Mr. Syed suffered no prejudice when his attorney failed to contact a credible alibi witness who could have testified that she was with Mr. Syed at the same time the state said he was committing murder. I was deeply troubled by the court’s unprecedented decision.
As a victim of a wrongful murder conviction that was finally overturned after nearly 18 years, I know firsthand how difficult it is to get a wrongful conviction reversed, even when there is evidence of your innocence. In 1988, when I was just 17 years old, my beloved parents were murdered in our Long Island home. Police questioned me for hours with no attorney present, insisted I was guilty and falsely claimed both that my father had implicated me before dying and that my hair had been found in my mother’s hands. I was finally exonerated and released after new evidence and witnesses established others were responsible for the crime and disproved the story that had been fed to me during my interrogation. But it took years and countless petitions and appeals in both state and federal courts to finally get the opportunity to even have this new evidence considered.
In many wrongful conviction cases, the courts turn a blind eye to truth and justice, and instead focus on finality or some other technicality to deny a hearing, prevent a new trial, or even suppress the presentation of new evidence. These hurdles make it nearly impossible for a wrongfully convicted person to obtain relief.
Maryland’s decision in the Syed case has just made it even harder. In assessing Mr. Syed’s claim, the Court of Appeals applied a more stringent prejudice standard than that which was articulated by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, the case governing the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims through which many wrongfully convicted persons gain relief. In so doing, the court held Mr. Syed to a higher burden than the law requires, making it even more difficult for a petitioner to prove his case. This will have a sweeping impact on the litigation of wrongful convictions. Not only will this opinion become the law of the land in Maryland, it will also be used by prosecutors and courts around the country to deny relief in even the most egregious of cases.
This comes at a time when we are more aware than ever of the inadequacies of our criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2018 was a record year for wrongful conviction cases: 151 exonerations of individuals who has spent a collective 1,639 years in prison. Official misconduct was uncovered in at least 107 exoneration cases, and 31 individuals who had been framed by police were exonerated in one city alone — Chicago. This data suggest that, rather than looking for ways to deny relief, courts and prosecutors alike should be even more willing to taking a second look in cases where errors were undeniably committed.
What really haunts me about Mr. Syed’s case is how it parallels so many other wrongful convictions, in that he hasn’t been given his rightful opportunity to have all of the evidence heard. Our stories should make anyone with a conscience scream out loud. Have we learned nothing? Courts need to start taking a fresh approach when reviewing claims of wrongful convictions — precedence shows us that we, as a society and a court system, have been wrong way too many times to let another potentially innocent person fall through the cracks again.
The Maryland courts should grant Adnan Syed a new and fair trial.
Marty Tankleff (email@example.com ) is an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown University and an Innocence Project Exoneree advisory board member.